Pink salmon thrive after Quinsam River restoration

Posted by Stephen Watson

Community partnerships are the engines of success. Important community partnerships were in place to lead up to a 2005 fish restoration project on the Quinsam River, within the Campbell River system, that four years later, has resulted in a record number of adult pink salmon returns.

In 2005, about 30,000 pinks returned to the Quinsam. Last year there were about 100,000, and this summer, approximately 800,000 pinks returned. How did this happen?

Many watersheds have solid community partnerships, yet through my 10 years with BC Hydro community relations, I have found Campbell River's community collaboration and partnerships as the best.

Working together and leveraging funds has resulted in tremendous fish enhancements and restoration projects and initiatives. River flow adjustments, gravel placement projects, side channels, and land acquisitions all play a very important role, but if you look at one restoration project as a proverbial home run, the Quinsam Cascades Fish Passage Project is it.

For background, pink salmon migration past a series of bedrock cascades to the Upper Quinsam River was often difficult, as the migration is typically during very low river flows in August and September. Pinks are strong swimmers, but they are not good jumpers.

Historically, tens of thousands of pinks would hold immediately below the cascades and be subject to predation or just be unable to spawn because of low water conditions. Over the last decade, in more years than not, BC Hydro has had to acquire a water license variance to provide low to extreme conservation flows in the Quinsam River.

With this year's near-record dry weather conditions, BC Hydro is currently operating, with approval from the Comptroller of Water Rights, the Quinsam River flow at about 40% of minimum water flows so that it does not run out of water storage.

The Quinsam Cascades Fish Passage Project came together in 2005 involving BC Hydro, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Haig-Brown Institute, and others. For a cost of about $90,000, channels were carved through the bedrock in three locations to allow the pinks to pass through.

That opened up 14 kilometres of prime spawning habitat. Based on the year when only about 30,000 pinks returned to the river system, hatchery staff were expecting roughly the same number in 2008. Instead, marking the first year of results of pink salmon returning from the cascades project completed in 2005, the return was more than 100,000.

Then came 2009 when the pink salmon returns eclipsed Fisheries and Oceans Canada's historical records. Ocean conditions and the hatchery program all play an important role, and the Quinsam Cascades Fish Passage Project is another key element in this success story. Another important benefit of all those fish carcasses will be increased biodiveristy – from insects to wildlife.

Another element of partnerships is BC Hydro's Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program. With the program funding coming from BC Hydro, the program itself is guided by BC Hydro, the BC Ministry of Environment, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the public and First Nations. The Restoration Program funded over one-third of the project's cost, and provided $10,000 in important seed funding a year prior to allow the project to take shape.

This story was not only about the strong pink returns, but the boon that this provided to the Campbell River community and local sports fishery. There is a sense of community pride with the many fishers and sightseers along the river banks.

The project has produced great results very quickly, and this year's record number of pinks can continue to move through the Quinsam system under low-flow conditions. BC Hydro cannot emphasize enough the importance of community partnerships in the Quinsam Cascades Fish Passage Project.

It is with pride and pleasure that BC Hydro was able to be a part of it.

Stephen Watson is with BC Hydro's Vancouver Island Community Relations group.