The Coquitlam River used to be so thick with salmon, elders say it was tough to navigate canoes.
Then came the dam. And the salmon run that inspired the Kwikwetlem First Nation’s name — Red Fish Up River — dried up.
For decades, environmental stewards have been advocating on behalf of the fish. As the Kwikwetlem Salmon Restoration Project continues, clear gains are happening — if you know where to look.
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First up is the new hatchery being built near the Coquitlam Lake Dam, what some consider a missing piece of the restoration puzzle. It’s set to be complete sometime next year.
Relationships with community partners are also improving. The hatchery, for example, is a partnership between the Kwikwetlem First Nation, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, BC Hydro, Metro Vancouver, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
When the first Coquitlam Lake Dam was built in 1913, it trapped a portion of sockeye salmon in the lake above the dam, where they became kokanee — landlocked sockeye salmon.
In the late 1990s, talks were kicked off with BC Hydro, says Dr. Craig Orr, a conservation biologist specializing in salmon as well as an environmental advisor to the Kwikwetlem First Nation.
At that point, the water flows were about two percent of original volumes. The lake provides drinking water for Metro Vancouver, as well as power via the Buntzen Lake Station. Fish, it seems, were low on the list of priorities.
After years of low or minimal return, the salmon advocates hit pay dirt. In 2005, water spilling from the lake flushed some 1,500 smolt down the river. A record 11 adults returned, the first to reach the lake in a century.
“It’s been a struggle since then,” says Orr.
Feasibility studies have been underway, looking for ways to boost the local salmon population.
A fish trap below the dam saw two sockeye adults in 2020, and one adult each in 2021 and 2022.
These days, there’s a detailed, complicated plan for increased water flow at strategic times of year to help smolt outmigration in April and May; reduce the stranding of coho in June; introduce cold water to reduce fish stress and improve survival rates of sockeye salmon above the dam; and to encourage sockeye migration upstream in September.
“It’s getting quite complex,” he says of the flow change requests, “but we think that it’s helping sockeye.”
While evidence is lacking that the measures being taken are helping, Orr says it’s worth it to continue, noting the benefits likely provided by the hatchery.
“The whole community is gathered around this,” he says. “Everybody’s been trying to restore this fish because we think it can be done. And they bring a lot to the community that’s named after sockeye.”