As CP Rail prepares to lengthen their rail along the south shore of Burrard Inlet by about 1,500 metres, Craig Orr is focused on how that proposed extension will interact with the world below the waves.

Orr, an environmental advisor for Kwikwetlem First Nation, is at work on a plan to offset any alteration, disruption or destruction to the sea life along the shoreline.

“We’ve been talking to [CP] for about three years now about doing some marine habitat offsets to mitigate for some of the damage that’s going to be done with that expansion. They’ve been a good client to work with,” Orr says.

Preserving kelp is crucial, Orr says, explaining the role the underwater forests play in the life cycle of herring.

In general, Burrard Inlet has seen a decline in abundance of fish as well as good habitat, making life harder and shorter for foraging juvenile salmon, according to a report by environmental consultant group Hemmera.

To remedy that decline, CP is proposing a “large, contiguous and complex structure in the shallow subtidal zone” with flora and fauna, deep, rocky reefs and a mix of sand and gravel mixed with boulders and bundles of concrete rail ties. The ultimate aim is to alleviate pressure on juvenile salmon in the inlet while creating a habitat hospitable for kelp.

The project would need approval from Fisheries and Oceans and Canada before proceeding.

“There’s a lot that can be done,” Orr acknowledges.

Artificial rocky reef offset built in northern B.C. photo supplied Ryan Miller, Hemmera.

But while plans are ambitious (Orr discusses a kelp reforestation campaign that would involve planting four species as an experiment) they are also somewhat constrained, he says.

“A lot of the areas that we originally started looking at for these potential offsetting projects are zoned for industrial use,” he explains. “We can’t do offsetting in there. It’s sort of narrowed our focus.”

Besides the Kwikwetlem First Nation, the project also involves the Musqueam Indian Band, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

“Tsleil-Waututh First Nation has bee doing quite a bit creosote removal,” Orr says. “When [herring] try to lay them on pilings that have creosote, it kills the eggs.”

If it works, the project could be a boon to salmon as well as lingcod, crab, and bivalve shellfish, according to the report.

Restoration, however, is a tricky business, Orr notes.

“It does take focus and it does take money to do this stuff.”