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Work in progress: A beach reclaims its soft nature

Jul 08 2012
Before: The first phase of a project to "soft armour" the shore has replaced jagged rocks with sloping sands and renewed hopes for the return of forage fish such as sand lance and surf smelt. 

Before: The first phase of a project to "soft armour" the shore has replaced jagged rocks with sloping sands and renewed hopes for the return of forage fish such as sand lance and surf smelt.

Photograph by: Courtesy photo , Tseycum First Nation

There are elders at Tseycum First Nation who can remember the softly sloping sand of Patricia Bay and the water boiling with surf smelt that fed people, salmon and birds.

"You used to be able to walk off the bank along Pat Bay," said Steve Barr, Tseycum fisheries officer.

B.C. Archives photos from the early 1900s show picnickers running along the sand and level access from the trail that later became West Saanich Road.

It's a far cry from the boulders and sharp drop to the beach that now characterize much of the shoreline. But Tseycum members, with funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the not-for profit organization ECO Canada, hope to bring Pat Bay back to its former glory.

With beach restoration, Barr hopes sand lance and surf smelt will return in force, feeding salmon and endangered birds such as the marbled murrelet and Western grebe, which live in the area.

Unlike some shoreline projects, the group is not using a seawall, which "protects the road, but damages the beach," Barr said. "The ocean comes in and scoops all the sand away."

Instead, they are opting for "soft-armouring." The first phase of restoration, in an area measuring 80 metres by 10 metres, was recently completed and 800 cubic metres of sand and gravel now feathers and slopes toward the water.

"High tide is no longer reaching the rocks, and that part of the beach is providing forage-fish habitat," Barr said.

"Those are the fish which feed the salmon when they first leave the streams. If we have destroyed all these beaches, then maybe, just maybe, that's why we have no salmon."

The First Nation called on the expertise of U.S. biologists and specialists, who determined the exact slope and angle of shoreline.

In some areas of Washington state, municipalities have now forbidden armouring shorelines with hard structures such as rocks and seawalls, Barr said.

"A lot of biologists are really, really excited because this is the first time this has been done in B.C.," he said.

The restoration is a passion of Chief Tanya Jones, a member of Pacific Shorekeepers for 13 years.

"I'm really happy about this project," she said.

A bonus has been training and employment for band members, Jones said.

Local companies and non-profit societies provided training for about 20 community members in water-quality testing, beach and fish surveys, mapping and profiling, flagging and heavy-equipment operation.

Now, with one success under their belts, the band is applying for federal funding under the species at risk aboriginal fund for the second section of beach. The provincial highways department has agreed to partner with the band on another section.

The next phase will mean netting small rocks and planting grasses and sedges at the edge of the beach, said Barr, who hopes the project will be underway by fall.

"At the end of the day, in a few years, people will be able to walk along the beach on Pat Bay, even at high tide," he said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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