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An anxious wait for fish in the Cowichan River

Oct 12 2012
Harvey Jack cleans dead salmon and debris from the Cowichan River Chinook Indicator Fence 

Harvey Jack cleans dead salmon and debris from the Cowichan River Chinook Indicator Fence

Photograph by: Darren Stone , Times Colonist

At the counting fence on the Cowichan River, members of Cowichan Tribes are anxiously watching as salmon make their way through the fish channel and up to spawning grounds that have been painstakingly restored over the past decade.
“Some of the fish are pretty big now. Yesterday, there were just over 200 fish,” said fish counter Dan Joe, sitting in a small shed above the fence where fish heading upstream are identified and counted with the help of an underwater camera.
The fence is funded by Fisheries and Oceans, which uses the numbers to set fishing limits, and managed by Cowichan Tribes.
It’s a better scenario than earlier in the week — before a pulse of water was released from the upstream weir — when fish rubbed their bellies raw trying to swim over dry rocks and seals in the estuary took chunks out of chinook that could not make it up the river because of low water.
A dead chinook near the fence has a chunk missing from her back.
“She’s still thick in the body. I think she died before she was able to spawn,” said Tim Kulchyski, Cowichan Tribes biologist.
The First Nation has stopped fishing because of the low water, and that is causing massive hardships, Kulchyski said.
“It’s difficult to relate how big an issue this is. It’s a mainstay for community members,” he said.
“We have huge unemployment in our community and our salmon are a cultural staple and we have had to deny that to our community. That’s huge,” he said.
People are going hungry because of the lack of salmon, said Cowichan Tribes Coun. William Seymour.
“We need something to happen immediately so in future, we don’t have to be worrying about what is going on with our river. Seeing it this low is disheartening,” Seymour said.
There have been meetings with provincial officials, but it seems that government does not think conserving chinook is important, Kulchyski said.
“The solutions are there. This spring, as in several years in the past, the spill gates were opened and all the water spilled away,” he said.
“We have been really struggling over the last few decades to bring back not just the chinook, but all the salmon species in the river. … If we can’t get the most basic thing in the Cowichan River, which is water flow, all the work we have done means nothing.”
Farther up river, where water flows from Cowichan Lake, weir operator Ken Gabrielson is looking over the railings on top of the spill gates with pride.
In the water are the dark, undulating shapes of at least 50 large chinook that, thanks to the water released from the weir, have made it into the lake.
“Before we opened up the flow from the lake to the river, we were getting very few fish up here,” Gabrielson said.
Now the flow is slowly being reduced to zero.
But there is hope that rain will now saturate the dry ground, fill up the dry creeks around the lake and raise the level of the river so fish can make it to spawning grounds and last year’s fry can survive.

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