British Columbia·Photos

World class Squamish kite surfing spot threatens salmon populations

District of Squamish considers decommissioning the space but still wants the area to remain a kite surfing mecca

District of Squamish considers decommissioning the space but still wants area to remain a kite surfing mecca

A kite surfer soars through the air at the Squamish Spit during the annual Kite Clash tournament. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

If you ask kite surfer Lucas Arsenault where to find some of the best wind in Canada, he'll tell you to head straight to the Squamish Spit.

"If its sunny outside, the way the temperature gradient works, its windy probably six days a week ... which is pretty crazy," said Arsenault. "[People] from all across the country come here."

"It's one of the best spots in the world," he added.

Luke Arsenault (right) and his girlfriend Lauren Holman travelled from Ontario to compete in the annual Kite Clash tournament. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

For years, the Spit has been the site of Kite Clash, an elite-level kite surfing competition that attracts competitors from all over the world. The man-made berm, which partially divides the Squamish River from Howe Sound, is known for its endless gusts of thermal wind that launch surfers through the air.

But according to the District of Squamish, the Spit has also reduced local salmon populations by cutting through a major estuary. The town's mayor, Patricia Heintzman, says preliminary discussions are underway to restore the habitat, which could mean decommissioning the space.

Chinook salmon populations have decreased since the construction of the Spit, which divides the Squamish River from Howe Sound. (Karin Chykaliuk)

But like many kite surfers across Canada, she hopes it won't come to that.

Salmon or surfers

Heintzman says the Spits' impact on Squamish River chinook salmon stocks was almost immediately noticed when it was built in the 1970s. The Spit was initially constructed to provide access to a coal port — but the port never ended up getting built.

"If you look at the [Chinook salmon numbers] prior to the construction of the Spit — there's been a dramatic reduction," Heintzmen told CBC News.

Dozens of kite surfers travel from across the world to participate in the annual tournament, which crowns both a national and international champion in men and women's contests. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Reports suggest Squamish River salmon populations were as high as 15,000 per year prior to the building of the Spit. Populations declined to as low as 500 in the mid-1980s. Stocks have since been elevated to 5,000 due to restoration efforts.

Local environmentalists have advocated for the complete dismantling of the Spit.

"It is not really helpful to the environment or really maximizing the salmon population re-productiveness of the estuary," she said.

But Heintzman admits removing the Spit would decimate one of the country's premiere kite-surfing hotspots, which plays a significant role in the town's tourism economy.

One of the worlds best kitesurfing hotspots is in Squamish, B.C. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

"In an ideal world, we would figure out a new location to make sure we are really tapping into the phenomenal recreational asset we have in our wind."

Kite Clash

One option is relocating surfers to a beach near the town's downtown core — but according to Steve Tulk, organizer of the world-class Kite Clash kite-surfing tournament, having surfers sail near boats and marinas could be dangerous.

"[Squamish] is one of the best places in the world to kiteboard," he said, "and we just want to make it a better place and a safer place."

Steve Tulk organizes the annual Kite Clash tournament, now entering its fifth season. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Tulk is also the event coordinator of the Squamish Watersports Society. He says he plans on working closely with the district to arrive at a solution, which could mean building bridges through the Spit, allowing salmon to move swiftly from the river into the estuary.

"We don't want to lose this spot. We love this spot, and we'll do everything we can to stay here and continue this sport."