Old folktales used to say that fishermen would step on the backs of fish so thick they were like stepping stones; what happened? Once full of towering cedar trees, fertile soils, and abundant fish populations, Canada’s Vancouver Island was a perfect habitat for hundreds of species. The island's river became renowned for its heavy waves of salmon and trout, covering every inch of the water bringing valuable fly-fishing conditions. The river made the front page news last month—hundreds of young salmon and trout were found dead, washed up on the shore and scattered along the bottom of the river. This phenomena is the largest die-off in Canadian history and has warranted a thorough investigation. Unfortunately—it’s still a mystery.
Upon the investigation, government officials and investigators found partially treated wastewater within the river a few weeks after the fish were found dead, but were unable to conclude if said water was toxic. Local scientists suspect that the culprit at large is climate change, which has already been contributing to the decline in salmon in British Columbia from increased drought and heat waves. The effects of climate change have been felt across the entire country, from wildfires to dramatic droughts and dwindling aquatic populations. Biologist, Tim Kulchyski, studied the atrocity further and dove down into the river. He found hundreds more dead pooled at the bottom of the river, then “barren zones” further down stream that showed no signs of fish activity. A region known for its temperate climate has been experiencing more extreme heat and droughts these recent summer seasons. These extreme changes weaken the fish populations causing death from many other connected factors.
The loss in fish has been most prevalent within the Cowichan Valley, a region that has been sustained by the Cowichan tribe for centuries, considering every living entity as part of their family. They have helped grow the local industry and tourism by keeping the valley and river stable. Unfortunately, the Cowichan's ecosystem can no longer survive without direct human intervention. Many experts flocking to this area have stated that if there was more water and less heat, the impacts would not have been this severe. Past abnormalities have not tipped this species over the edge, as the rest of the ecosystem was aligned, but now due to consistent imbalances across all sectors, the river doesn’t stand a chance. This decline has been two years in the making, first being seen across the province’s Pacific Coast.
So what now? The Cowichan Watershed board is pushing for the construction of a bigger weir that could hold and store more water for the dry months. And more human intervention will be needed in these regions as drier summers and warmer winters are predicted.
“Nature does correct itself, but it can’t correct itself where man is substituting himself for nature…we’re in a different world. We’re simply taking too much out of the environment worldwide,” stated David Anderson, previous CWB federal minister of the environment and current CWB board member.