Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat

Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat

Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat
A coho spawning in a small stream (Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

I come today in praise of the Vancouver Sun and trust that events don’t prove that I should’ve approached the mainstream media with my usual skepticism.

First, let me tell you a story from my early life which you may have heard and, if so, please bear with me.

Coho spawn in the darndest places

When I was a young lad, my friend Denis and I used to bicycle down to the Musqueam Indian reserve and fish two tiny creeks, one which we called Tin Can Creek, more properly known as Musqueam Creek.

With shiner lines, a tiny hook and a bit of worm, we would catch small cutthroat trout and, as with all young boys, rejoice at every second.

At Tin Can Creek, one day, a First Nations lad with a gaff came along, bent down over the edge and scooped out a fish which must’ve run 5 or 6 pounds at least. We were thunderstruck! If we’d known there were fish that size in the creek, it might’ve scared us out of fishing it!

Moments later, and a bit further upstream, the lad did the same thing.

This taught me a lesson of a lifetime. These were coho salmon and this tiny creek contained their spawning ground. For those unschooled in these matters, the coho salmon is the second largest of the seven Pacific salmon* which inhabit our waters, and in my opinion is the most beautiful; certainly it’s very sought after as a sports fish and considered a delicacy by those who like eating fish.

It must be noted that thanks to the careful stewardship of the Musqueam Nation, this run has survived and prospered – a rarity indeed in Greater Vancouver.

As I grew older and got more involved in fishing and later in governments dealing with fishing, I learned that the coho is unique in that it doesn’t spawn in great numbers in rivers and lakes but in small runs in tiny streams and even ditches all up and down our coast. I learned too that the reason the coho was an endangered species in the Salish Sea area was loss of habitat due to agricultural practices and land development.

Farmers try to make a amends for habitat destruction

Photo: geograph.org.uk
Photo: geograph.org.uk

A front page article of Monday, December 29 in the Vancouver Sun tells how the paper’s “Minding The Farm” series – probing fish-bearing creeks on farms and activities by landowners which have damaged habitat – prompted some farmers to attempt habitat “remediation” on their properties.

One does not, unfortunately, gain the impression that the farmers are very enthusiastic about this program. To them, the creeks are no doubt a nuisance and very much get in the way of their normal farming activities. This is compounded, I’m sure, by the fact that some drainage ditches have even become spawning grounds.

The major culprit is waste. When this seeps into the creeks, it kills the fish, as simple as that.

Fish an “inconvenience” to farmers

Since I first learned of the problem it was obvious that farmers weren’t about to take a few fish in a creek seriously. They were no different than real estate developers who would report that there were only a “few fish” in the creek and therefore needn’t concern anyone.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been extremely slow off the mark over the years and has hesitated to charge anyone. (This longtime observer smells political interference). One fisheries officer, quoted in the article, showed his frustration by asking:

[quote]What does it take to get charged? You really have to try hard.[/quote]

One stream at a time

The question is one of overall public good. While it doesn’t seem a huge sacrifice to allow a handful of fish to be killed in a stream, to accommodate agriculture or a new suburb, the aggregate of such losses is unacceptable. Therefore, the solution is a step-by-step, small stream by small stream business – hard to implement, even harder to enforce.

We quickly run into the phrases “remedial measures” and the weasel word of all, “mitigation”. I do not regard a culvert or a re-created stream as either remedial or mitigating. Nor do fish biologists.

The basic decision the public must make is whether it’s worth it to save these small runs of fish. The Vancouver Sun believes that it is worth it and I agree with them.

A moral question

This question can’t be measured in dollars and cents – at least it ought not to be. One can always find a monetary reason to destroy things. The issue is, of course, monetary in the sense that progeny of these runs do supply sports and commercial fisherman, thus generating revenue – and it does cost money to preserve streams.

But can we, in all conscience, permit the destruction of salmon runs, however big or small, for any reason? Once we decide to destroy things for money, it is a slippery slope and we become cynics, for, as Oscar Wilde observed:

[quote]A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.[/quote]

The Pacific Salmon is what identifies British Columbia the world over. I don’t think it goes too far to say that it is sacred – the soul of our province.

It gets down to this: If British Columbians won’t protect and enhance the symbol of what our lovely home is all about, who will?

*Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye, Pink, Rainbow (Steelhead) and Cutthroat.


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at rafeonline.com.

12 thoughts on “Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat

  1. The law is the law… Cost of doing business should be formatted into fines payments based on land use, and recurring violations. Contact your MP, MLA…
    As for salmon in general. Environment laws are clear, DFO is cash strapped, the new initiative is a money grab. Forcing small timets out. Look into investment from the food giants here in B.C. Nestle, Pattison group… We have to eat… Soon all the lines will be drawn. And you’ll still pay the tax increases. Based on nothing more then your favourite politician’s contributors needs, and of course their share values. Good luck Raif, et al

  2. Dan – that’s the problem. You have to want to save and enhance fish runs even when it’s pain in the ass.

    There was nothing but expense in it for the Musqueam to save Musqueum Creek or those who enhanced Still Creek etc etc

    It’s an attitudinal thing and requires leadership from, yes, governments. I was at a public meeting a couple of years ago and my MP, John Weston, Tory representing a coastal riding, not only couldn’t list our Pacific salmon, but mocked me because I could! His remark was completely unprovoked and shocked me.

    The folks at Fisheries and Oceans Canada are fine dedicated people but the decisions are politicized. I learned a hell of a lot fighting The Kemano Completion Program when fine DFO scientists were silenced, moved, retired and their studies buried by the Mulroney government government, Tom Siddon minister.

    That’s why, in my dotage, I keep throwing punches

    1. Agreed Rafe. It is a perception that has to be changed if the salmon are to continue to exist and thrive.

      My point was to confirm that this has gone on for a long time; the perceived inconvenience of having to consider the environment when doing business.
      Too many large corps and factory farms see the penalties as a tax for doing business the way they do.

      I can recall listening to you on brand X about the Kemano project.

      As long as you keep throwing them, I’ll keep reading and listening to them.

  3. First thing to remember is that it is not about saving fish. Its about who ultimately has the right to kill them. Either farmers at the beginning stages of life or sports or commercial fishermen or first nations later on. I am not a farmer but I sympathise with them in that they are asked to spend a lot of money or loose a lot of land with no compensation. The 10 to 30 meter setback for riparian habitat is a land grab without compensation. It is difficult for the government to take the land outright, but it is easy to limit an owners ability to use it. You don’t need to compensate them that way. And its not just farmers. Fish streams bisect thousands of properties in BC, and I know of many cases where most if not all of a homesite is rendered unbuildable by riparian setbacks. Its easy to criticize if you do not own a property that is rendered worthless by riparian setbacks. If it is indeed all about the economic benefit of preserving fish stocks so they can be harvested later in their life cycle then some of that revenue generated should go back to landowners who are expected to provide free habitat.

    1. Of course this is not about saving fish; it is about retaining fish habitat.

      Important to be mindful that fish habitat supports more than just the guy later on in the boat with a line out and a can of beer in hand.

      Fish habitat supports a variety of other wildlife, bacteria, trace elements, and other soil and stream benefits.

      Landowners compensated for new developments and realizations in science? I can’t agree with that.

      There has always been a set back from streams on farmland. It is just that now the setback has become a wider swath of land.

      Most of the streams are not privately owned, but pass through privately owned land. The feds have a duty to care for the condition of those streams and if that means imposing new rules upon a segment of the population who can improve the condition of those streams as they pass through private lands, then this must be done.

      I understand the point of view conveyed here but look at the other side; many, not all, farmers have been using these ditches and streams as their own private dumping grounds for decades.

      See where the mistake is? It comes from both sides of the equation. The feds did not allow enough for riparian setback. The farmers were ignorant along with the rest of us, and failed to realize the permanent damage being done to resources.

      I have farmed a lot over my short life; remember that fields are never fully used. There is always a set back around the perimeter which is usually a pathway developed by heavy machinery working the soils.

      Same thing happened with setbacks following the Walkerton tragedy. The rules were changed for manure spreading across Ontario even though it was those two morons operating the water station that observed the e coli numbers jump but continued to sit there and get drunk, doing nothing.

      The e coli had to come from somewhere so the guvmint began to eliminate, or try to eliminate potential possibilities, manure spreading being one of them.

  4. This is good but there is no mention of the fact that the habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act no longer exist, thanks to the Harper regime. This has huge implications going forward.

  5. Quoted;

    “The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been extremely slow off the mark over the years and has hesitated to charge anyone.”

    I can recall in 1981 when operating heavy equipment for Vantreight Farms at a place called Panama Flats which lies between Interurban Rd. and Carey Rd and is a flood plane for Colquitz Creek, Mike Vantreight and I had to repair the flood plane drainage pump at the southeast end of the flat.

    This was initially installed to drain the fields in early spring but the late Geoff Vantreight has installed a two way pump so that the potatoes crops could be irrigated during the summer months.

    I recall the Vantreights’ being fined significantly for drawing water from the creek,( Mike told me this) because a number of Coho were found stuck to the screen, some smaller ones had made it through and were dead on the back side of the draw. This was following an investigation by a DFO agent.

    “Since I first learned of the problem it was obvious that farmers weren’t about to take a few fish in a creek seriously.”

    It is interesting to note Rafe’s comments about farmers not taking this seriously. I can recall Mike V telling me this story like it was a nuisance to deal with, a complete pain in the ass and there were only a few fish that got damaged.

    So they paid the fine like it was a tax on their business.

    We did not have to repair the pump system but take out the 2 way valve and replace with a one way.

    Also this is one of the main reasons the old Fulford Inn site on Salt Spring has not sold. There is a coho bearing stream on the property and will be a nightmare to attempt development there into the future.

  6. I stand corrected on the size of coho & chum – not by much!

    I should have known better having worked in a cannery however Chum aren’t much of a sports fish (though beautiful) and coho are of course.


  7. Interesting topic Rafe.
    I was on the east coast of Canada last summer and their were a few news stories of farmers being fined by the Dept of Fisheries for “spraying” (insecticide, fertilizer, etc) too close to streams.
    Apprently this happens every year and there is a mandated “set back” of 50 to 100 feet for the health of the streams and rivers.
    ANOTHER huge problem is cultivation. Farmers plow the fields, sow their seeds and then it rains and rains and rains. The dirt and mud washes into the rivers causing “die offs”. More fines from fisheries.
    I have relatives from both sides of the fence. Farmers and fishermen.
    The fines are typically $1000- $2000 per incident. A big “hit” to single family farmers.
    The large multinational companies that lease the land ……….. its the cost of doing business(tax rightoff) so it happens year after year after year.

    1. Yes, they will occasionally push 40 lbs. And if hatcheries have any say in the matter coho will soon be reduced to pink salmon size.

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