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Restoring Habitat For Wild Salmon
The Fraser River is home to the largest collection of salmon runs in the world and many of them need our help.
In the lower Fraser Valley, communities and farmland are protected from flooding by dikes. Many of these structures cut off important salmon habitat from the river—and from salmon. Watershed Watch has identified 1,125km of impacted salmon habitat, with 207 flood structures that can be upgraded to restore salmon to these waterways.
More Habitat = More Fish
As old structures are upgraded, we can accommodate fish and reconnect these waterways to the Fraser River. Restored waterways are better for communities, can provide better flood control, and will help rebuild salmon runs in the lower Fraser.
One of the world’s richest collections of Pacific salmon habitats once existed in the lower Fraser River valley, but the waters and adjacent lands are now heavily degraded through urbanization and agriculture.
Dikes play a major role in flood control and irrigation, with about 500 flood-boxes and gates on tributaries and sloughs in the region. These waterways used to flow naturally into the Fraser, but many are now severely restricted because inferior flood-boxes and gates don’t allow fish and water to pass through. The result is poor water quality, limited flow, and degraded, disconnected salmon habitat.
A new paper demonstrates that small-scale flood-control structures transform streams from nurseries for salmon and native species to hotspots for invasive species. More about the research from the MooreLab here.
The solution lies in improving this outdated flood control infrastructure.
Re-connecting these degraded waterways to the Fraser and restoring formerly vibrant salmon habitat will help achieve local and regional salmon recovery goals. It will also boost the enjoyment that local citizens derive from their green spaces and waterways and, when done right, can improve flood protection for the surrounding communities and farms. Success will involve collaboration among First Nations, all levels of government, post-secondary institutions, private landowners, citizen groups, and others.
Restoring habitat by re-connecting waterways can be accomplished by upgrading out-dated flood control infrastructure to improve the passage of water and fish. Other habitat restoration—like riparian planting and removing invasive species—is also needed in many cases. The installation of fish-friendly pumps and tidal gates is proving successful in restoring salmon habitat at test restoration sites like Spencer Creek in Maple Ridge, and with similar case studies in the Skagit Valley (USA) and Australia. Improvements like these can be implemented across the region, re-connecting these degraded waterways to the Fraser and opening up considerable amounts of prime salmon habitat.
There is, however, no “one size fits all” solution. Each of these waterways and the adjacent land presents its own unique blend of factors that must be accounted for: unique flow patterns, species assemblages, existing infrastructure, traditional use, current use, community needs, regulations, governments, and more. Unique solutions for restoring the habitat are required for each location.
To ensure responsible flood management while balancing the needs of salmon, we need to work together and get this done. We are calling for:
- Collaboration among First Nations, federal, provincial, and municipal governments, landowners, citizen groups, and other interested parties to ensure the best possible outcomes for our communities.
- Federal and provincial infrastructure funding for municipalities to ensure improved fish passage and water exchange as they upgrade their ageing flood-control systems.
- A stronger role for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in providing guidance to the province and local municipalities when it comes to upgrading and retrofitting pumps and gates in the lower Fraser and other controlled floodplains.
- Application of the federal Fisheries Act (e.g. sections 20 and 35) to dike, pump and gate-related works—to ensure fish have access to their habitat. In other words: treating fish habitat like fish habitat under the law.
- Revising the BC Diking Act to better account for fish; especially Pacific salmon, BC’s official provincial fish.
Healthy tidal habitats can provide a quiet place for out-migrating juvenile salmon to eat and grow so they can better avoid predators as they migrate out to the Salish Sea and beyond. Additional fish habitat in the lower Fraser region will provide a boost to weakened salmon populations in the Fraser watershed.
Reconnecting our waterways with improved infrastructure in the lower Fraser valley can provide benefits that include:
- An economic boost to local communities, as infrastructure upgrades and habitat restoration projects proceed.
- Reduced risk of structural failure and lost farming opportunities.
- Widespread social and community benefits from expanded recreation opportunities.
- Improved ecosystems from strengthening wild salmon populations and healthy habitats, with positive impacts for many species within the Fraser Valley and beyond.
Farmers and other partners with similar restoration projects are already reporting the following benefits (see ‘Case Studies’, below):
- Improved water quality, providing better irrigation for farmers and better habitat for fish.
- The return of wild salmon to waterways that until recently were unproductive.
- Updated infrastructure that will provide a decrease in operation and maintenance costs and improve flood management.
- Expanded green spaces and healthier waterways for community use, from recreation to tourism.
- Strengthened relationships and a collaborative approach to working together, instead of against one another, to solve problems and improve our communities.
Watershed Watch has been working with the Katzie First Nation and community members in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge to restore the Katzie Slough, which is emblematic of the larger issue in the lower Fraser. We are working to improve water quality and salmon habitat in the slough through a combination of community engagement and science-based advocacy at the local, provincial and municipal levels. Our ultimate goal is to secure government commitments to put in fish friendly flood control infrastructure for the benefit of the entire community.