The British Columbia Conservation Foundation wants to make two important estuaries on Vancouver Island more attractive to salmon - and less appealing to flocks of hungry Canada geese.
The restoration project, which has been planned in detail but which is still awaiting some funding, hopes to restore the Englishman and Little Qualicum River estuaries "to full productivity" for coho and Chinook salmon.
But to restore a balance to nature they have to drive out the geese, an introduced species that has done extensive damage.
A recent study of the two estuaries, north of Nanaimo, found that Canada geese have fed so heavily on natural grasses that large sections of the marshes have been turned into mud flats, where young salmon have a hard time surviving. The studies, which came out last month, generated some controversy because the researchers, a trio of leading bird biologists, supported a goose cull, saying the birds have to be removed because they have drastically changed the estuary ecosystem.
There are now an estimated 15,000 resident Canada geese on the East Coast of Vancouver Island, descendants of a few birds that were released from a game farm near Victoria about 80 years ago.
The B.C. Conservation Foundation project does not propose to cull the geese, but rather seeks to exclude the birds from large areas of marshlands by creating habitat that provides cover for predators.
Craig Wightman, a senior fisheries biologist with the B.C. Conservation Foundation, said in an e-mail the project won't solve all the problems caused by geese, but it could be a key to restoration of the estuaries.
"Obviously, the road back to 'full productivity' will be long and dependent on many complementary initiatives, including more active [Canada goose]management and physical habitat improvements," he stated.
The project hopes to make large areas unattractive to geese through the placement of logs and stumps, which geese are reluctant to feed near because they provide cover for predators. A century ago, large woody debris was common in estuaries, because big trees and stumps settled in there after being washed downstream by floods. But logging, and the clearing of upstream land for urban or agricultural development, removed the old growth forest, and that led to a gradual disappearance of logs and stumps in the estuaries.
"Wood entering streams [now]tends to be smaller, more mobile, and decays faster," states the B.C. Conservation Foundation in a description of the project. "This is especially true in these estuaries … with most small trees carried directly into Georgia Strait during winter floods, and not retained by estuary channels and benches."
With the big, old logs washed away, the estuaries provided wide-open grasslands where geese could feed without fear. Over the decades, growing flocks of birds cropped off the grasses, creating erosion problems. Channels used by salmon filled with mud, and the absence of large woody debris in the water also robbed young fish of places to feed, hide from predators, and shelter from the sun.
The B.C. Conservation Foundation expects to complete detailed planning by March, with the construction phase - which will include a barge and crane to deliver large woody debris - to start later in the year, after a period of public consultation.
The B. C. Conservation Foundation is a non-profit group that for several years has been working with the federal and provincial governments on rehabilitating upstream sections of the Englishman and Little Qualicum. The new project shifts the focus to estuaries, but the organization will continue upstream fish-habitat restoration as well.
The group has secured more than half of the estimated $75,000 cost of the estuary project, as well as lining up in-kind donations, and recently applied to the Pacific Salmon Commission for a grant of about $34,000 to complete the funding.
Agencies working with the B.C. Conservation Foundation in the watersheds include the Guardians of Mid Island Estuaries Society, the Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society ,The Nature Trust, the B.C. Ministry of Natural Resource Operations, Regional District of Nanaimo, local native bands and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.