Thinking about salmon

Awhile ago, we posted a bit of background about the Taku River, an important salmon-producing river near Juneau, Alaska that supports commercial, subsistence, and sport fishing for salmon in both southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Our visit to Squamish a few weeks ago reminded us of the Taku, and while we’re waiting to head offshore, I thought I’d share a bit more about Howe Sound, the fjord where Squamish sits.

As we sailed into the back of Howe Sound, its sheer granite cliffs reminded us a lot of the Taku Inlet. When you approach the back of the Taku Inlet, the steep sides narrow, the rock faces become more imposing, and, as you round the Taku Glacier, you find yourself on a wide river, with the distinct feeling that you are leaving the coastal rainforest climate and entering a new zone. As you reach the back of Howe Sound, the sides similarly narrow, the mountains become steeper and rockier, and you begin to look for the mouth of the river, but as you get closer, you start to wonder whether you will be able to find the river at all. Instead of a rushing river mouth, you see the remains of an old mine, log booms, and industrial shipping facilities. When we found the river, we had to weave our way between other boats and logging operations to find the harbor. The town of Squamish itself is hidden behind this front of industrial waterfront.

Log booms lining Squamish Harbor

Interested in the comparison between the Taku and Howe Sound, and curious as to whether the river water was as dirty as it looked, we did a bit of research and found that Howe Sound’s history might present a valuable lesson for the Taku. In the 1970’s, a copper mine along Brittania Beach, just south of Squamish, closed down and left a mess behind it, eventually selling the property to developers who built right over sites sacred to First Nations groups in Canada. The Canadian provincial government then spent decades fighting with the previous owners of the mine, one of the worst polluters on the North American continent, to clean up its mess. Acid mine drainage wiped out all the life in Brittania Creek and left the creek water unfit for human consumption. Millions of gallons of acid mine drainage and chemicals drained into Howe Sound, wiping out the herring population entirely and depleting salmon stocks. The government now spends millions to treat water from the area of the mine.

More log booms with Stowamus Chief in the background
In recent years, more than three decades after the mine shut down, herring have started to return to the Sound for the first time. Unfortunately, a local group monitoring the reports of returning herring, the Squamish Streamkeepers discovered that most of the herring eggs were dying. Herring left eggs on pilings from a local wood treatment plant, but the pilings were treated in creosote, which killed the eggs. The Squamish Streamkeepers have found a successful solution—they have wrapped the pilings, a few each year, and are now finding more herring coming back every year. Pacific white-sided dolphins, which had not been seen in the Sound in decades, have reportedly made a few visits since the return of the herring as well, and there is hope that with more herring, the salmon stocks in Howe Sound will make a recovery.

Although the mine shut down years ago, its effects are ongoing. A little research drags up other problems as well—salmon habitat was destroyed through road construction near the Squamish River, and pollution from a pulp mill, logging operations, and other industrial activities continues to pose a threat to an already damaged ecosystem. Despite this history of problems, Squamish is still a beautiful spot and a great town, once you get past the waterfront. Squamish is doing a lot of things right. We found a great “Adventure Center,” where the staff makes sure visitors can find their way to any of the amazing outdoor adventures the area has to offer, a lot of signs proclaiming plans for new, sustainable waterfront projects, and a commission on sustainability. There are ongoing salmon habitat restoration projects in the Squamish River and elsewhere, as well as the efforts to promote herring recovery and to treat water polluted from the Brittania Mine. We had a great time visiting the area and were amazed that we could anchor the boat in the river, walk a few blocks to a local climbing area (and still see the boat from the top of the climbs, a big plus from Rob’s perspective), and take a bus half an hour up the road to hop on a whitewater river. Squamish seems to be trying to find a balance between its historical industries and a more sustainable push toward marketing adventure, and we were certainly sold on Squamish’s vision for itself.

Nonetheless, we were struck by the similarities between what we saw on the Taku River, and what Howe Sound may once have looked like. Although Howe Sound is doing its best to make a recovery, and we did find plenty of marketing for charter fishing on the sound, the Taku River cannot afford to take a chance with its salmon. The Taku may never see the level of development that a more accessible place like Howe Sound has seen, but, as the history of Howe Sound and the Brittania Mine shows, all it takes is one mine to destroy the local fish populations.

A view of Squamish as we sail away

For more on Howe Sound, check out these links (you’ll find a lot of others with a little Googling as well):

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