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Ocean salmon noticeably absent from BC Gov. tweaks

Since 2005, Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has researched and explored the natural and human history of the rivers of the upper Columbia River Basin. 

She speaks frequently at conferences and symposia throughout the Basin on the history of the Columbia River Treaty and its effects on Basin residents.  She has recently completed a manuscript titled A River Captured – history and hydro-electricity in the upper Columbia Basin

An American by birth, Pearkes has been a resident of Canada since 1985 and Nelson since 1994. She has written many articles and several books that explore place and its cultural meaning. 

The Geography of Memory, a history of the landscape and indigenous people of the upper Columbia watershed published in 2002, remains a Kootenay classic.

Pearkes has agreed to help The Nelson Daily readers understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.

Today the river historian talks about the notable absence of restoring ocean salmon to the upper watershed by the B.C. Government during its recent announcement of tweaking the CRT.

 

The B.C. Government’s recent release of 14 recommended “tweaks” to the CRT was notable for what was absent from the list: the restoration of spawning ocean salmon to the upper watershed. 

The government has justified this omission by explaining that the loss of salmon is not due to the construction of a CRT dam. Therefore, restoration of salmon should not be included in a CRT review process. 

The government is absolutely right about why the salmon no longer swim 2,000 kilometers upstream to the Rocky Mountain Trench. Spawning grounds for the Chinook, sockeye and steelhead trout in the upper watershed in B.C. were cut off a full three decades before the CRT was signed when Americans constructed Grand Coulee Dam.   

On the surface, the provincial government’s recent stance to leave salmon off the list has an air of logic about it. 

Dive deeper and another way of looking at treaties and rivers and ecosystems rises to the surface.

When the United States approached Canada in the 1930s to ask if their northern neighbour had any interest in the salmon soon to be cut off by the Grand Coulee Dam, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans declared that the fish entering Canada were not of national significance. They were not part of a Canadian commercial fishery. 

Canada had a fishery in B.C. —  on the Fraser River on the west coast. The fishery on the Columbia was an “American” one.  The loss of the fish would be America’s loss.

Over the ensuing half-century, scientists have learned a great deal about how ocean salmon feed and support ecosystems. The biological value of spawning fish to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems is now well-documented.  As a “keystone” species, salmon connect with a great many other species who depend upon them for their vitality - including raptors, bears, predator fish and even forests. 

Prior to the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, the uppermost watershed lands surrounding the Columbia, Slocan and Pend d’Oreille Rivers were to some degree ‘salmon forests’ — places of complexity and richness thanks to the annual decay of marine nitrogen stored in fish flesh.   

There is no question today that the loss of salmon to the uppermost watershed is both a Canadian and an American loss.  While one can make a solid argument that American money and know-how should pay for the restoration of salmon since an American dam caused the loss of the fish, it doesn’t make as much sense to leave this restoration idea off B.C.’s treaty shopping list. 

Several years ago, the 15 ‘American’ tribes and confederations of tribes that live along the Columbia River made an historic decision. They would cease fighting among themselves and unite around one major issue: the return of the salmon. Since then, these have increasingly worked together. 

They have formed the Columbia Basin Tribes Coalition, traded science among each other, shared funding and gathered regularly to plan how and when the return of salmon might be possible. The drumbeat from their work is audible, and exciting.

There are those on both sides of the international boundary who believe that the warming conditions caused by climate change make the viability of restoring salmon populations a faint hope — at best. 

The tribes are not listening. 

They assert instead that climate change increases the value of the spawning habitat in the Columbia’s Canadian source mountains. Nearly 20 smaller tributary rivers feed the Columbia north of the international boundary.  These rivers and the snowy Canadian mountains that feed them may represent the best hope of the spawning habitat in the entire watershed.  

This American tribal energy and momentum around salmon restoration is in stark contrast to the B.C. government’s recent, limiting decision to leave the item off their CRT “tweak” list.  

Is this a political play? 

A negotiation strategy?  That’s possible.

A more expansive view of the potential to heal the watershed through the CRT review process might serve the river and its people better in the long run.

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