The Salmon River on central Vancouver Island is a rarity in British Columbia, perhaps even in North America.
Like most other rivers on the West Coast, its once-famed salmon runs have declined because of habitat destruction and overfishing.
But unlike other rivers, the Salmon offers not only the opportunity for full restoration – but also the chance to actually make it more productive than it ever was.
The dream of most fisheries conservationists is to restore damaged watersheds to their natural productivity. But on the Salmon, the potential is bigger than that.
And nobody is pushing harder for change than Mike Gage, a tireless champion of salmon conservation. He is a representative of the Salmon River Fish and Game Association and chair of the Campbell River Salmon Foundation.
"We could really do something up there," says Mr. Gage of the Salmon, which rises as snow melts in Strathcona Park, and develops into one of the Island's larger rivers by the time it reaches Johnstone Strait, near the small town of Sayward.
"According to Fisheries and Oceans … we could increase coho production from 12,000 to 20,000 and could increase steelhead numbers by 30 per cent," he says.
A lot has already been done to restore the river. The provincial government has been working for decades at habitat restoration, hauling in boulder clusters to improve rearing habitat for young steelhead, removing log jams that were impassable to fish and fertilizing the river to replace the nutrients lost when the salmon population crashed.
In one brilliant move, in 1976, provincial fisheries workers blew up a huge boulder lodged in the throat of the Salmon River canyon, which had blocked migrating steelhead and salmon from reaching 12 kilometres of prime spawning habitat.
But Mr. Gage says the greatest opportunity for improvement has yet to be acted on.
A little over halfway up the Salmon River, above the canyon beyond which salmon once couldn't pass, is a BC Hydro diversion dam that deflects water down a canal to a nearby system; here, it is used to boost power generation.
That diversion dam, built in the late 1950s, blocks fish from colonizing the upper 40 kilometres kms of the Salmon River.
Over the years, some spawning fish did slip past the dam, and others were stocked, establishing a small population upstream. But each spring, most of the fry are killed or transferred into another watershed, when they get caught in the diversion canal while migrating downstream.
In the late 1980s, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans built a fish passageway around the dam. But subsequent studies showed that it never worked. Fish enter, but most are driven back or become trapped in the clashing currents.
A few years ago, Mr. Gage stood on the bank watching 200 coho mill in confusion at the base of the dam, throwing themselves against the concrete barrier. And he thought it was time to act.
Since then, Mr. Gage has spent years in meetings with the DFO, the province and other government agencies, debating the best way to solve the problem.
"You put in a proper fish passage, and you open up 40 kilometres of prime salmon habitat," he says. "It is that simple."
He argues that if a channel was blasted 90 metres through the rock, it would allow spawning fish to swim past. And if the diversion canal was closed for a few months in the spring, salmon fry could migrate out safely.
The proposals have been kicked around for 4 1/2 years at the meeting table. But there is still no decision. This fall, the salmon will be running into the same old road block when they head up the Salmon River to spawn.
"It's time to get going on this," says a frustrated Mr. Gage. "We shouldn't miss another salmon cycle by talking."
But James Coles, BC Hydro's area manager, says there are a number of possible solutions – from retrofitting the existing fish way to building a new one – and the matter has to be dealt with carefully.
"Once the need and potential solutions are identified … then BC Hydro will undertake a triple bottom line business decision, prioritizing the potential solution against other business needs," he stated in an e-mail. "If a single recommended option is deemed suitable, a feasibility study will become part of the proposed business plan. BC Hydro will then evaluate and prioritize with existing processes for potential implementation."
That is a very business like approach. But it is also a very slow one. The opportunity to open the upper Salmon River became available when the province blew out the canyon blockage, 35 years ago. So why are the salmon still waiting?