Challenges ahead, but there is hope

By James Rose
Local Journalism Initiative

Shuswap councillor, Mark Thomas, has worked on reintroducing salmon to the Columbia River for twenty years. Currently, he is the chair of the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative’s (CRSRI) executive working group. 

The CRSRI consists of the executive working group, the technical working group the implementation team, the interim Indigenous knowledge guidance committee, the communications advisory group and the secretariat. Together, these groups, which consist of delegates from British Columbia, Shuswap, Ktunaxa and Sylx Okanagan Nations share a mission of exploring salmon reintroduction into the upper Columbia River region.

The creation of the CRSRI was made official with the signing of a letter of agreement at a ceremony held in Castlegar in July of 2019. The letter of agreement outlined a three-year renewable commitment by the five governments to work together to look at the feasibility and options for reintroducing salmon into the Canadian side of the Columbia River. The long-term vision is to return fish stocks for Indigenous food, social and ceremonial needs and to benefit the region’s residents and ecosystems. “Our culture, our language would come back with the successful reintroduction of salmon to the river,” Thomas says.

The work of CRSRI is funded by contributions of the governments of Canada and British Columbia and the Columbia Basin Trust. Each is providing one-third of the $2.25-million budget.

“We’re now looking for a longer-term commitment,” Thomas says. “We want to go past the three years commitment, because you can’t restore species in that amount of time. So how do we move forward to continue work on salmon restoration?” The group has discussed a multitude of options, all backed by scientific inquiry as to how best to reintroduce a species to the Columbia River that once swam from the Pacific Ocean as far as the Columbia Valley. All that changed once the Grand Coulee Dam was completed in the state of Washington in 1942.

CRSRI has determined that salmon ladder technology could effectively be used for passage over the dams on the American side. But due to the height of the Revelstoke and Mica dams, more innovative technology is needed. Nevertheless, there is promising, but untested technology that may provide a solution to the height problem. 

“The way it would work would be a utilization of a combination of technologies,” Thomas says. “Potentially, it would be a big giant vacuum that would suck up the salmon from one side of the damn and then spit them out over the top.” The Whoosh technology is proven to work up to 750 feet in height— approximately the height of the Revelstoke and Mica Dam. There’s not much room for error with those numbers. “But perhaps there’s a possibility of building a platform with salmon ladders to reduce the height of those dams,” Thomas says.

Despite the progress, Thomas is less confident salmon will be reintroduced to the Columbia River. “Compared to ten years ago, I have 50% of the confidence I once had,” he says. “Global warming is a real concern. Our weather patterns have changed. The Columbia River was the warmest it’s ever been on record this year.”