Wild pacific salmon have returned each year to rivers and streams across B.C. for millennia. However, since colonization, and accelerating in recent decades, salmon populations have steeply declined. Factors in this decline include overfishing, salmon farms, pollution, habitat loss, and the overuse of hatcheries. But the greatest game-changer of all time is climate change.
B.C. is already experiencing longer and more intense droughts and in some rivers and streams, summer flows are so low salmon are dying before they make it home to spawn. For this episode, guest host Anna Kemp spoke with Vancouver Island biologists Tim Kulchyski, Tom Rutherford and Tanis Gower about the impacts of low flows on salmon and how we can manage our watersheds to give wild salmon the best chance at survival in a changing climate.
Read more about Tanis Gower's Tapped Out report, mentioned in this episode.
The Freshwater Stream is a podcast about B.C.’s watersheds and the people who care about them. Find out more and check out more episodes here. And please, if you like it, rate and subscribe on your favourite podcast-playing app!
The Freshwater Stream is a collaboration between Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the former Canadian Freshwater Alliance.
Danielle | 0:00
I’m Danielle Paydli and this is the Freshwater Stream, a podcast about B.C.’s watersheds and the people who care about them. This week, we’re talking about the impact of climate change on B.C’s wild salmon and I am pleased to welcome Freshwater Stream team member, Anna Kemp from Watershed Watch Salmon Society, to host this episode. Hi Anna, and thank you so much for leading this important conversation.
Anna | 0:24
Thanks, Danielle. Much appreciated. We’ve got quite a bit to get through this episode so I am just going to get into it.
As we all know, wild pacific salmon return each year to thousands of rivers and streams across B.C., as they have for millennia. However, since colonization, and accelerating in recent decades, salmon populations have been in steep decline. Some reasons why include overfishing, salmon farms, pollution, habitat loss, and the overuse of hatcheries. But the greatest game-changer of all time, for our salmon, and for us, is climate change. B.C. is already experiencing longer and more intense droughts and in some rivers and streams, summer flows are so low salmon are dying before they make it home to spawn.
For this episode, I spoke with three biologists from Vancouver Island about the impacts of low flows on salmon and how we can manage our watersheds to give wild salmon the best chance at survival in a changing climate.
Tim | 1:24
Hi, I'm Tim Kulchyski, biologist for Cowichan Tribes.
My traditional name is Qutxulenuhw and, as well as a biologist, I am a Cowichan tribes member. And I happen to live well, basically, in between both Cowichan and Koksilah watersheds. For myself, growing up right close to the confluence between the Cowichan and Koksilah, we were kind of fortunate, in a way. As a youngster, I was able to learn how to fish in the Koksilah. I was able to actually travel with, you know, my-my immediate relations to the Cowichan River, to my uncles, the ones that taught me how to fish. As a child it was not uncommon at all for an eight year old child to be able to go and catch a salmon and to bring it home and to bring home… to be a contributing member of the family, I guess you might say, at eight.
The strange thing is, you know. It's only more recently, so between my childhood and now, it's been such a lack of salmon. That it's been next to impossible to have that same kind of relationship with the salmon. Because if they just the fish are not there, then you have nothing to count, you have nothing to catch. If the salmon aren’t there, you don't have anything to study. As a biologist and as a parent, it's pretty profound. We're just finally getting back to a stage where, you know, we can reintroduce our children more significantly to catching fish. And so that's a pretty solid benchmark for our community when a youngster can go down and catch a salmon and learn what it's all about.
Anna | 3:24
Thanks, Tim. It is clear how important salmon are to your community and I am glad to hear that things are improving somewhat in the Cowichan and Koksilah. Tanis, can you introduce yourself and say something about the impacts of climate change on watersheds across B.C.?
Tanis | 3:40
My name is Tanis Gower. I'm an independent consulting biologist based in Courtenay B.C. I live in the Mullard Piercey watershed, really close to Piercey Creek, which is a small creek in an urbanizing area. It's a green refuge for me; I can walk for two minutes and be walking alongside the creek looking at the stream life and enjoying the forest.
I've been working for years looking at the connection between the quality of salmon habitat and how much water is available for salmon. I helped put out a report in 2019 called Tapped Out, where we attach some numbers to the problem of water scarcity, and try to educate people that, in fact, we don't have the abundant water that we sometimes assume we do. You know, of course, we have so many waterways in British Columbia and our coastal areas have so much rain.
But when we zoom in to the areas that people live in and have developed for agriculture and urban areas, there, in fact, isn't always the water that we think there is. We've got protected drinking watersheds in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island. But in many other places, water systems are based on smaller creeks and wells and there isn't necessarily as much water as we need. And moreover, when we start looking at the impact on stream life, when water is extracted in the summer months, it can be surprisingly dire.
There's been many studies, since the 80’s, pointing out that our salmon need more attention in terms of providing the flows they need during the summer months. But climate change is bringing the concern up by an order of magnitude because we're seeing, of course, longer summer drought periods, higher summer temperatures, and general water stress.
Anna | 5:35
Thanks Tanis. Your Tapped Out report is really helpful for anyone looking to understand the water crisis we face in this province. If any of our listeners would like to have a look at it, we will put it in the show notes or you can find it on the Watershed Watch Salmon Society website.
Tom, can you introduce yourself and let us know what climate change looks like in your watershed?
Tom | 5:57
I'm Tom Rutherford. I'm the executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board. And I live here in the Cowichan Valley. And our community is really defined by the river, we are truly a community that has a river flowing through it. And I think one of the magical things about it is the significant salmon run. So there are salmon in the river year round at different life history stages, and you can see them, you can smell them, you can hear them.
The river looks a little bit different than it did probably 100 or 200 years ago, a lot of things have changed. Here in the Cowichan Valley, as with most places now, we're not waiting for climate change to happen — we're experiencing it. And what that means for us in this part of the world on the southeast side of Vancouver Island is that we're experiencing warmer and wetter winters. So more precipitation, warmer temperatures, and hotter, drier summers. And that's expected to, in fact, continue and accelerate. So what it means for the river, is in the winter, we're losing our snowpack. So rather than having snow in the mountains, now, we're getting less snow and more and more rain, which means more floods. And what it means in the summer is we don't have that snowpack, which is like natural water storage.
So the river drops, earlier river flows, and then we're not getting the rain, we're getting drought. So we're getting, really, extremes at both ends. What that does in the winter is it accelerates bedload movement. We've also had a pretty heavy footprint on the land for the last 100 years. So the combination of land use and these high winter flows are really resulting in huge wedges of gravel moving through the river. And so this is changing things, right? It's filling up pools, it's washing out large woody debris. And then gravel is accreting or piling up in the lower end of the river because the gradient drops, so the velocity of the water drops. When we have summer low flows, it makes the problem worse because the water actually flows under the gravel. So in the lower end of the river, rather than low water, now we're seeing no water in our heritage river.
Anna | 8:26
Wow. So that must be devastating for salmon.
Tom | 8:30
Water is, is key, and it’s really threatened. And I can see a time in British Columbia where if we're not able to make some real changes in the next 10 to 20 years, that we'll see areas where salmon are extirpated, just because there's not enough water at the right place, at the right time, to support them.
Anna | 8:54
Thanks, Tom. Tim, you mentioned that there have been some improvements in salmon returns in the Cowichan and Koksilah in recent years. How has that come about?
Tim | 9:04
Thankfully we have a pretty solid partnership in the Cowichan and the Koksilah. We're able to better look and pull partners together with the right knowledge pieces. it's not any one individual, it's not any one little tidbit of knowledge, it's being able to pull all of those pieces together. And so it's meant that we've had to engage with all kinds of players or interest groups in the watershed. It's meant right from farmers, to forestry companies, to local governments, to individual well owners. It's meant that we've had to have some conversations that aren't always comfortable. Because it's a tough dynamic to try and get everyone to reduce.
And, it's been happening, and I think, I think in the years to come, if we can continue, we'll be able to actually show the benefit of maintaining salmon returns. Now, for our community, that's pretty huge.
I think people are kind of getting a little bit of a glimpse at what's possible. When you bring all of the players together, when you protect the resilience of a system, whether it's a small little creek, whether it's the tiniest little watershed, or, a bigger, more comprehensive watershed, like the Cowichan and the Koksilah, the benefit of protecting the resilience of those systems, I think, people are starting to see that value. See that it's not just salmon. It's not just recreational fishing, it's not just commercial fishing, it's not just food fish. It's not just kayaking. It's not just, you know, all of these other uses. It's really about being responsible to this way of life that's been developed over the Cowichan and the Koksilah, over millennia. We're now starting to see some fairly decent Chinook returns to the Cowichan and to the Koksilah. But there's so much more that the systems are really capable of, we just have to be better attuned, and more responsive and respective of those systems.
And I think down the road, we're going to be a lot farther ahead than so many other communities because we've taken the time; We've taken decades to try and get the story right.
Anna | 11:59
Thanks, Tim. I have heard the Cowichan Watershed Board has brought people in your community together despite their differences. Tom, as a fellow member of the Cowichan Watershed Board, what do you think about that process is working well? Is there something in this model that other communities can learn from?
Tom | 12:16
One of the understandings with the Cowichan Watershed Board, one of the things we really, really believe in, is that the people that live in a watershed are probably best situated to support salmon and that watershed. And so we're a great believer of local empowerment, of local communities taking on responsibility for the river that supports them, and the salmon that support the culture and the people that live in the community. And I think we've shown that that can be effective.
Well, that makes perfect sense. So for communities to develop bodies like the Cowichan Watershed Board, what do you think is needed?
Tom | 13:04
What I would say is that, there's no doubt in my mind, communities don't have the resources, and, and the capacity to do that by themselves. There is certainly a role for senior governments in this. And I think, ‘you're in British Columbia’ — we're quite lucky in that we have a new Water Act, the Water Sustainability Act, which has a variety of tools, most of which haven't been really tested yet or implemented yet, that could really go a long way towards water sustainability for salmon. Things like water sustainability plans, water objectives, water reserves.
And so I think there's the potential there for senior government to work closely with local communities, First Nations, to really figure this out. The other thing that's happening, we're hoping, is senior government, the province, is seriously considering water sustainability strategies, and a Water Sustainability Fund. Those could be two tools, that again, could really resource and empower local communities to really stand up and take responsibility for salmon and the rivers that support them. So I am cautiously optimistic that this model that we're trying to pilot here in the Cowichan, where the First Nation, local governments, local people are standing up and saying, we need to do this, that that model, here in British Columbia, can be empowered, and can be resourced. So, I'm an optimist and I see a real mechanism there for British Columbians all over the province to have the ability to really make a difference.
Anna | 15:02
Thanks, Tom. How about you, Tanis? Are you feeling hopeful about where we go from here?
Tanis | 15:09
I'm both excited and concerned about water management and B.C. When the province brought in the Water Sustainability Act in 2016, there was so much to celebrate, and there's been incremental progress, but my concern is with the speed of the progress, and also with climate change, as we're seeing record-breaking temperatures and extended droughts.
I'm really concerned but at the same time there's the silver lining to that is the level of awareness that's growing with ordinary people about the fact that water is precious and needs to be better stewarded. And hopefully, that will provide the political will for us to do a better job.
Anna | 15:51
That is a great note to end on.
Thank you so much to Tanis Gower, Tim Kulchyski and Tom Rutherford for taking the time to speak with me for this episode. If you want to get involved in calling for better watershed management in B.C., visit CodeBlueBC.ca to find some easy-to-use tools for sending an email or making a phone call to our decision-makers. As always, a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to this podcast, with a special shout-out to the audio genius of Mr. Brenden MacDonald.
And thanks to all of our listeners who have helped us become a five-star rated podcast! If you haven't already, please leave a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you like to listen, it really helps to grow our community of listeners.
Danielle | 16:36
Thank you, Anna, and thanks to all the listeners who have joined us over the past two seasons to talk about the issues that matter in our community watersheds throughout B.C. This episode has been a co-production of the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and Watershed Watch Salmon Society and if this is your first time joining us, you can find more episodes at CodeBlueBC.ca.
That’s a wrap for Season 2 and as we enjoy the warm weather, be sure to get out to your watershed for a swim, a walk, a monitoring session, a clean-up, a picnic, a kayak, fishing trip - whatever motivates you.
When we love something, we stand up for it and if you are listening to this until the bitter end, then you love your watershed. So, join us at CodeBlueBC.ca and let’s defend our watersheds, together.