British Columbia

Sockeye restoration efforts spark hope and heartbreak on the Coquitlam River

In 2017, 5,000 sockeye smolts were released into the Coquitlam River by the Kwikwetlem First Nation with hopes of restoring the population. But so far, only three of the fish have returned.

After 2 decades of painstaking work to revive native sockeye, the Kwikwetlem First Nation is changing course

The Coquitlam River gets its name from the local Kwitwetlem First Nation. Kwitwetlem mean red fish up the river. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For thousands of years, before settlement and careless translation, the Coquitlam River sustained Glen Joe's people with its abundant sockeye salmon.

So central to their culture, his ancestors called the waterway and themselves Kwikwetlem, meaning red fish up the river. 

"It's everything that we are, everything that we do," said Joe, Kwikwetlem First Nation fisheries manager.

"I think of the salmon as my family ... my brother, my sister, my father, my mother. This is what the sockeye mean to me as a person who comes from the Sto:lo culture."

Sadly, a scarce number of coveted sockeye remain in the river today. 

The first and most devastating blow came at the turn of the previous century, with the construction of B.C.'s first hydro electric dam across the river.

Completed in 1913, it blocked Kwikwetlem salmon from reaching their upper spawning grounds, while making it practically impossible for fish trapped on the upper reservoir side of the dam to migrate out to the ocean.

Some work has been done to help young salmon move out of the reservoir into the river, but the dam remains a major obstacle.

Kwitwetlem First Nation Fisheries Manager Glen Joe releases an adult sockeye into the Coquitlam Reservoir. (Submitted by Craig Orr)

Over time, additional destructive forces arrived — gravel mines that muddied the water with silt, growing suburbs on either bank, global warming and, for the past two years, historically low salmon returns to the Fraser River into which the Coquitlam flows. All these factors have pushed the Kwikwetlem sockeye to the brink.

Restoration efforts launched two decades ago have led to some successes, and a few heartbreaks.

Three years ago, hopes were raised when partners in the Kwikwetlem Sockeye Restoration Program released 5,000 smolts into the river to begin their journey to the ocean and back.

The group anticipated the first of the precious sockeye would return as adults in 2019. But not a single fish showed up.

This year, the news was slightly better. Three sockeye managed to defy the odds: two arrived in the live fish trap below the dam, were put in a tank and driven around to the reservoir and released to hopefully start the next generation. 

Coquitlam-Burke Mountain MLA Fin Donnelly was on hand to help with the release of 5,000 smolts into the Coquitlam River in 2017 when he was the area's member of Parliament. (Submitted by Craig Orr)

A third fish was found dead, partly eaten by a wild animal.

As ecologist Craig Orr sees it, three sockeye are better than none. 

"We're just sort of limping along and seeing a few fish coming back," said Orr, advisor with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and Kwikwetlem First Nation.

"It's a struggle, but people have to maintain hope that the ocean survival rate may improve and we may start seeing more fish come back."

Joe says he feels disheartened by the slow progress of restoration, so much so that he's plotting a new course to bring the salmon back, albeit a species from a river system a few kilometres away.

Next year, the Kwikwetlem First Nation plans to build a hatchery below the dam in a joint project with BC Hydro.

"I want to get brood stock from Pitt Lake or Pitt River and put it back in this system here, simply because the DNA is very similar," said Joe.

"I presented it to the chief and council and, if I can, I would like to flood this river with sockeye the next two years. This is my intention and dream right now."

Craig Orr is a professional ecologist. He splits his time as the conservation advisor with Watershed Watch Salmon Society and as the environmental advisor to Kwikwetlem First Nation. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

According to Joe, the idea is to try and support the watershed and local wildlife in any way possible.

"If we do get sockeye from Pitt Lake I have no desire to put them in the [reservoir] because they have a hard time getting out," he said.

"So whatever sockeye that I helped bring back, they'll stay in the Coquitlam River below the dam for the enjoyment of the public."

Orr says while the sockeye remain a challenge, there is reason to celebrate when it comes to the restoration of other types of salmon.

"We released over 50 adult coho above the dam for the first time in one hundred and fifteen years," he said. "And so we have had some small victories."