Estuary Restoration at the Somass River Mouth

Over the last 10 years, millions of dollars have spent up and down the east coast of Vancouver Island on salmon enhancement, and on habitat restoration. And the spending continues.

The starting 20 years ago, Campbell River estuary has been extensively restored. When I lived there, it was an industrial site with three mills on it. There was mud and concrete everywhere. Large amounts of fill had been brought in to support heavy machinery logs and buildings . Very little was left as suitable habitat for fish. That has all been restored.

Restoration of the Campbell River Estuary

Further down island large amounts of money has been spent on restoring ecological functions to the mouth of Courtenay River. Almost 4 hectares of pavement are being pulled up, a shoreline wall is being removed, waterways are being established and native plants are being reintroduced.

Restoring the mouth of the Courtenay River

Even further down island, the Englishman River has been heavily restored as well. Here, there is a similar story of fill removal, re-establishment of old drainage channels and the purchase of property.

There is much more activity between these drainages being done to “soften” the shoreline and to reduce the impact of invasive Canada Geese on the intertidal zone.

However, very little has been done to restore what’s been done to the Somass Estuary over the same time period. And that’s a shame. The Somass River is arguably the most important salmon river on Vancouver Island.

Bob Cole, who has been around the fishing scene in the community and served on many “fishy” panels and boards over the years, says that thanks to the Robertson Creek Fish Hatchery, the Somass produces more Chinook than any other river on the Island. It also produces far more Sockeye than any other river on the Island, without any help from a hatchery. In fact, only the Fraser River produces more Sockeye in BC. One year it even produced more than that river, Cole says.

One can speculate about why opportunities to do this haven’t materialized. some of it could be that priority has been going to projects in the Georgia Basin. However, this valley experiences many of the same pressures from development that the basin does. We do lack the extensive beach habitat. But we have invasive species, diked creeks, old log sorts, sewage lagoons, creeks diverted, temperature issues in the rivers, dropping populations, and more. In times gone by some work was done to improve the situation by the Alberni Valley Enhancement Association.

Two small “sedge benches” were constructed, one in Shoemaker Bay and the other a couple of hundred meters down the inlet along the Log watering road. Then Ducks Unlimited with several partners bought the area ,that was originally called the J.V. Clyne Bird Sanctuary, in 1991 from Weyerhaeuser. It includes a hay meadow a marsh north of the pipeline, a fringe of old growth next to the river, and Johnston Island. At that time a dike was built along the east boundary to prevent tide water from flooding the poplar plantation next door. this was a condition of the sale. The dike was planted with native vegetation a few years later. The access road has had two culverts replaced with bridges and a larger culvert added in another place. Lastly another bridge was added to provide smolts access to the best habitat in the estuary

Two other projects are looming on the horizon. One is the restoration of the old City sewage lagoon that will be decommissioned when the new wastewater treatment plan is brought into service. Almost $200,000 has been set aside for that. And the other, is more of an idea rather than a real project

The other one is, so far, just an idea. Former councillor, Chris Alemany is gathering support for rewilding the Dry Creek estuary, former location of the Tseshaht village before contact.

But there is still plenty to do at the Somass Estuary. Way back in 2003 the Alberni Valley Enhancement Society along with 14 other organizations from business government and conservation organization hired a consultant to write a report called the Somass Estuary Management Plan. It details many projects that could be carried out. Only a fraction of them have been acted on.

Chinook Smolts in the Somass Estuary

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Global News at Six. A story about the future of the Squamish Spit came on. As I watched, I realised that they had exactly the same issue that we have here in our estuary with respect to Chinook salmon smolts.

In their case, a long narrow berm of fill was built out onto the mudflat of the Squamish River many years ago. It was to serve as part of a coal port that never materialized. The trouble with it is that this “Squamish Spit” separates the river that salmon smolts descend, from the estuary the estuary where they adapt to salt water. For salmon, especially Chinook Salmon, estuaries are critical habitats. Chinook Salmon more dependent on the estuaries than any other salmon species .

Conservationists have long recognised the situation and have called for the berm to be removed. But they are opposed by the Squamish Windsports society who regard their access to the winds of Howe Sound as “Canada’s Premier Kite-boarding Location. It looks like the windsports society is not going to win this one and that the spit will be breached to allow the smolts access to the rest of the estuary.

It you substitute a couple of lagoons for the spit, you have the same situation right here in Port Alberni. All the Chinook Salmon smolts have to travel out into the inlet, around our wastewater lagoons and Johnstone Island.

The Alberni Valley Enhancement Association was able to secure funds to conduct a study of juvenile Chinook use of the estuary and confirmed a similar situation exists here at the mouth of the Somass River.

From the report: “Much of the estuary’s eastern shoreline (river-side) has been hardened through industrial, commercial and residential development, and much of the western estuary (i.e., Phil’s Bench area) has been cut-off from direct river connectivity by historic diking and channel-filling practices. Salmon fry and smolts attempting to rear in central and western reaches of the estuary must now migrate around the south end of Johnstone Island (which is no longer an island), and move passively or actively back on-shore in order to find suitable habitats. Given their relatively small size and limited swimming ability, it is problematic whether a majority of naturally-spawned Chinook fry can successfully complete this journey each spring.

So the AVEA recognised this situation and secured funds to replace a part of the access road between the ponds with a small bridge. However, it was recognised that the wastewater effluent from the old pond, that currently empties into the river would then also flow into the lagoon and ruin the water quality. So a dam was built as a temporary solution until the new wastewater plant was completed. The new plant discharges underwater 800m out into the harbour.

I mentioned that the bridge is a small one. Indeed it is. It is only 4 or 5 m across. The other two bridges over flood channels to the are almost twice as big.

Unfortunately the design of the new lagoon didn’t include a longer bridge, or another bridge. There is room to build one, but the opportunity to do so has likely been foreclosed. There is some hope that some of the money set aside for the decommissioning the old lagoon could be used to ensure that water flows freely under the bridge.

It is too bad that, unlike Squamish, this community doesn’t yet appreciate the importance of restoring the only part of the Somass Estuary that is relatively intact. It is only a third of its original size. No wonder the Chinook stocks are struggling.

References: The Importance of Estuarine Habitats on Anadromous Salmonids of the Pacific Northwest: a literature review. page 7.

What is the future of the Squamish Spit

Squamish Windsports Society proposes municipal park at Spit launch site

Somass River Estuary ‒ Juvenile Chinook Salmon Habitat Use Pilot Study ‒ Year 2 (Spring 2014)