Coho smolts. (Tanis Grower photo)

OPINION: A giant, invisible problem for Fraser salmon and how to fix it

‘Successful examples of salmon-friendly flood control can already be found throughout the Lower Mainland’

By Tanis Gower

One of the largest migrations in the animal world is happening right now, here in B.C. We celebrate our salmon for their amazing journeys back to their home streams, but these same salmon start their lives with an incredible, less visible journey: migrating by the millions as small and vulnerable fry to the ocean where they will spend their adult lives.

Life is tough for small salmon: most get eaten by larger fish and other predators. Yet the main factor that determines how many make it to the ocean is the quality of their freshwater habitat. Young salmon, particularly coho and Chinook, need protective side channels outside of the main river channel where they can find food and take refuge. The lower Fraser River and its estuary, once replete with these nursery habitats, has radically changed over time to support farming and human settlements.

While many of the original side channels still exist, most are blocked to fish passage by dikes and floodgates. Flood controls were traditionally built without consideration for wild salmon. Thankfully, technology and awareness has caught up to this problem. There are now well-proven fixes for the old flood control structures needlessly blocking thousands of kilometres of vital salmon habitat.

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A huge opportunity is currently presenting itself. Most of the dikes, floodgates, and pumps protecting B.C.’s communities are aging, and many are too small to block the larger floods and higher tides caused by climate change. Major upgrades are needed. If we ensure these upgrades consider wild salmon, we can both protect our communities from flooding and welcome wild salmon back to their former habitats. This is urgent: Fraser River salmon runs have dropped to disastrously low levels, and if the current infrastructure upgrades do not take salmon into account, the next round of upgrades is decades away.

Municipalities are working on the challenge of upgrading their infrastructure. They have asked the provincial and federal governments for support in using green infrastructure and nature-based solutions in flood management, in a resolution passed at the last Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention. This request includes funding support, but also better standards and guidance that deliver social, cultural, and ecological benefits through a smarter approach to flood management.

If billions of taxpayer dollars are to be spent updating our flood controls, it should happen in a thoughtful way that gives salmon access to their former nurseries. For salmon to co-exist with flood controls they need floodgates that open for as long as possible, and fish-friendly pumps – not the closed gates and “meat-grinder” pumps that they are facing now. They also need attention to the condition of their waters – such as planting shady vegetation and removing invasive species.

Investment in salmon-friendly flood protection and associated habitat restoration can create good local jobs and stimulate the economy, and it can’t wait. Salmon-friendly flood protection needs to be supported in both the provincial and federal 2021 budgets and built into criteria for infrastructure funding. The B.C. government’s promised Watershed Security Fund would be an excellent avenue for this important work.

The salmon are ready and so are we. Successful examples of salmon-friendly flood control can already be found throughout the Lower Mainland, Washington State, and around the world. It’s the way of the future and everyone wins.

Tanis Gower is a restoration ecologist and biologist with 25 years’ experience working as a consultant, for government, and in the nonprofit sector. She is a science and policy advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

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