Before colonization, the Cheewaht Lake watershed was a pristine spawning ground for salmon – and home to countless other species.
Then came industrial logging – years of gravel and woody debris creating blocks, splitting the creeks, and destroying eggs downstream.
The streams became “choked with gravel” – and the salmon abandoned them.
“It was a real wake up, then the populations were at high risk of being extirpated,” said Mike Wright, a registered professional biologist and owner of M.C. Wright and Associates Ltd.
Following research by Wright, the Cheewaht Restoration Working Group was re-established to work on ways to restore the habitat.
The group is a diverse collaboration between first nations, government, and forest industry organizations.
“When we created the working group, we said, `Look, we all know how we got here,’” said Wright. “The finger-pointing stops…but we all came together to work towards a solution.”
After securing funding from Parks BC and getting a restoration team led by the Ditidaht First Nation together, they hit the ground (or water) running.
They started by building sediment traps in critical areas of the rivers.
The team removed 3,206 square metres of gravel, roughly equal to two hockey rinks.
“Not only do you have to remove the gravel and try to make the creek stable again. But you have to establish a split where the two creeks diverge from one another in a way that’s going to actually last,” said Ryan Abbott, a registered professional biologist at M.C. Wright Associates.
They re-created water basins that had been filled in and two channels that had historically shared the flow of water.
From there, it was all about removing blockages and anchoring woody debris along the streams.
The anchored wood along the edges creates long-term pools by increasing water pressure and helping the river to scour away excess gravel.
“What wood does, one of its big functions in a creek like this, especially a creek that can move a lot of material… it’s the driver of the habitat,” said Abbott.
Finally, in 2020 their efforts paid off.
The salmon began returning.
The group has continued their efforts to improve the watershed since then – but it still has a high sediment content.
“Gravel will continue to come, over time. And that’s just part of what they call the fluvial process,” said Abbott.
But enough has been removed that salmon experienced a good spawning season this year.
Hundreds to thousands of fish have been filling the creeks to spawn.
“It’s a big run this year,” said Yuri Zharikov, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve ecologist. “[The fish are] almost lining up. There’s just too many of them.”
Four years from now, the eggs from this season will return as adults and spawn in the Cheewaht watershed’s streams.
Then we’ll get to see the real impact that the project has made.
Not just on the salmon, but on all of us humans, and animals that rely on them.
As Wright put it, the project is about a lot more than some fish.
“This project’s really about Ditidaht. And it was important that we made sure that the sockeye run was going to be there for future generations.”
* All quotes and reporting sourced from Alexandra Mehl, a reporter with Ha-Shilth-Sa. *