As mopping up from B.C.’s extensive flooding in November continues, Sumas First Nation members and other helpers are hauling nets through soggy fields in the hopes of rescuing salmon that were swept off course on their way to spawning grounds.
To date, they’ve collected just a few dozen fish, but volunteers hope their efforts will make a difference by allowing those rescued fish to spawn, improving the odds for species whose numbers were already in decline.
“It does make you wonder, when do you say, ‘Enough is enough, we did what we could,’” Murray Ned, executive director of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, said Thursday in an interview.
“But considering the salmon crisis … to get them back to their spawning grounds is extremely important and just allows for a little peace of mind.”
Rescue crews have been looking for fish, including coho salmon, that were flooded out of the Sumas River, a tributary of the Fraser River system, when waters rose last month.
The region was devastated by heavy rains, which flooded farms and fields, forced hundreds of people to evacuate from their homes and damaged roads and dikes.
As waters receded and the extent of the damage began to be tallied, Mr. Ned and others were thinking about fish. Wild salmon were facing challenges in British Columbia before the floods, with populations of several species dwindling to critical levels over the past few decades. Worries intensified with the Big Bar landslide. Reported to authorities in June, 2019, it blocked a section of the Fraser River near Big Bar, north of Lillooet, creating a barrier for migrating wild salmon and worsening the outlook for future runs.
An emergency response involving First Nations and the provincial and federal governments helped restore fish passage through Big Bar, but the long-term effect of the slide is still being assessed.
This month, Mr. Ned, who’s also an elected councillor with the Sumas First Nation, has been helping to co-ordinate fish rescue crews with the Pacific Salmon Foundation. The foundation worked with the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance and the Sto:lo and Sumas nations to launch the effort.
The mission involved slow, heavy work and limited returns. Sometimes, a whole pool would be dragged with nets without a single fish turning up. But then, crews would net three or four healthy-looking salmon, including females that were heavy with eggs and yet to spawn.
“When there’s up to 2,000 eggs in each of these females … that starts to translate into something substantive at least,” Mr. Ned said.
Rescued coho were dumped flopping into coolers and transported by truck to the nearby river and released.
In a statement Wednesday, the Pacific Salmon Foundation said salmon have been spotted in ditches, fields and swimming across streets and in backyards.
As well as immediate rescue efforts for stranded fish, the foundation called for monitoring water quality for potential contaminants, repairing habitat that is vulnerable to heavy rain or snow and adapting “nature-based solutions,” such as sloughs and side channels that are designed to accommodate high water flows.
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