Where to find south-central BC's ghost salmon

·15 min read

Standing on the rocky banks of the Powell River, you can see zero salmon. But 100 years ago, before the mill, you would have seen thousands.

These are the ghost salmon.

Lois River, Powell River, and Theodosia River were once major spawning grounds for salmon, from the classic red sockeye to the fiery-patterned chum. These three watersheds held hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon and were the beginning of life for hundreds of thousands more. That is, before the first dam was built in 1911.

Nowadays, the Powell River is most often called Powell Lake, and serves as one of qathet’s most popular recreational destinations for boating, swimming and houseboats – all thanks to the dam. However, before the dam, the river ran through Tis’kwat, Tla’amin Nation’s original village site, and the folks who lived there depended on the river’s salmon for food.

“From our oral traditions, there are stories of how productive the river was. It was one of the largest fish habitats aside from the Fraser River,” says Tla’amin Nation Hegus John Hackett.

In 1910, the construction of the Powell Lake dam had started and by 1911, that dam was finished, providing hydroelectricity to the new town and paper mill.

This dam proved to be disastrous for the sockeye, coho, chum, pink salmon, sea-run cutthroat, and steelhead runs that previously spawned in the river.

“In the 1700’s, Spanish explorers recorded in the Cortes journal that the Powell River had the second largest sockeye bearing stream in the world,” says Tla’amin Nation executive council member and housepost of lands and resources Erik Blaney. “There are still chum and sockeye returning to Tis’kwat and trying to spawn in Powell Lake. There is also the odd chinook that returns from the Powell River Salmon Society’s mill hatchery. Even though those fish are released at Lang Creek, the hatchery uses the water from Powell, which is why some chinook return there,” Erik says. “Salmon have a strong sense of smell that leads them to their original stream.

“Over the years, we have counted between 1,500 to 3,500 salmon returning to Powell.”

The Powell Lake dam also meant a new kokanee stock evolved. Kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon. They are much smaller than sockeye, share similar diets, and even turn the same red colour during the kokanee’s spawning season.

The biggest difference is that kokanee live in freshwater systems their whole life. Sockeye migrate from ocean to freshwater to spawn.

By 1930, the first Lois Lake dam was built and Lois (Eagle) River was blasted. Local guide and private fisheries consultant Pat Demeester says the dam on Lois Lake is the most destructive dam in qathet because there is no way to ever restore Lois’ salmon populations.

“Before, salmon were able to jump the falls at Eagle River, because there was a steady incline. Since Eagle River has been blasted, that incline has been destroyed,” Pat says. “There is no way for the fish to be able to jump Eagle Falls anymore.”

Similar to Powell Lake, Lois’s spawning salmon included sockeye, coho, chum, pink, sea-run cutthroat, and steelhead. The Lois Lake dam, like Powell, also introduced new landlocked sockeye, now kokanee, which live as a resident fish population in the lake.

“There are pink, chum, and a small population of coho still spawning in the lower reaches of Eagle River,” Pat says.

That makes two of qathet’s biggest salmon spawning watersheds dammed and destroyed.

The Lois Lake dam wiped out the salmon spawns at Dodd, Ireland, Khartoum, Horseshoe, and Nanton lakes, as well as Freda Creek.

“There may be genetic sockeye that now exist as kokanee in the tail end of Khartoum,” says Pat.

The only major salmon spawn left is Theodosia River, which is facing many problems of its own.

Theodosia was dammed in 1956 and over 60% of the upper river’s water is diverted into Olsen and Powell Lakes, sending more power into the Powell Lake dam.

“Theodosia is special because it still has salmon,” Pat says. “But that water needs to be returned.”

In other words, Pat proposes the dam be removed to restore Theodosia River’s waterflow.

In 2012, Erik assisted researchers from Living Rivers – Georgia Basin/ Vancouver Island in creating the Theodosia Climate Change Report.

The research team found that before the dam on Theodosia was built, chum salmon had the biggest population, spawning in numbers of around 35,000 fish. Last year, 3,940 chum returned to Theodosia River to spawn – just 10% of the former average.

“It is very unfortunate that the establishment of hydro dams has affected two major fish habitats [Powell River and Theodosia River] in our territory,” says the Hegus.“There is a ripple effect of environmental degradation when manipulating with mother nature. Unfortunately, I believe this generation will see the extinction of one or more species of Pacific salmon forever if we don’t intervene, I’m praying it’s not too late.”

On top of the poor chum returns in 2021, Theodosia’s chinook, coho, pink, and sockeye returns were even worse.

Tla’amin counted 54 chinook, 2,657 coho, and 344 pink salmon that returned to spawn in 2021.

Zero sockeye returned to Theodosia last year.

Tla’amin Hatchery manager Lee George says that last year’s combination of disastrous events also didn’t help Theodosia’s low salmon returns.

“Last year was a poor year for returns due to climate change, the atmospheric river flooding, and a higher volume of sea lions in our area when the salmon returned to spawn,” says Lee.

The Hegus says it’s time to prioritize these species at risk of extinction.

“It should be a mandatory priority of the dam owner [Brookfield] and Department of Fisheries and Oceans to address the issue with a fish ladder or any technology we can use to enhance the migration and spawning of Pacific salmon.”

Despite all this, there is hope for Theodosia.

Tla’amin’s watershed protection plan includes recommendations to restore and improve Okeover River, Tla’amin River, and Theodosia River watersheds. The nation is also currently working on a marine and forestry plan, to help monitor Tla’amin’s watersheds.

Besides Theodosia, the lone remaining major salmon spawning river, there are also three medium salmon spawning streams: Lang Creek, Tla’amin River (also known as Sliammon Creek), and Okeover River.

All three of these streams have been enhanced by the Powell River Salmon Society (PRSS) and the Tla’amin Hatchery. Tla’amin and the PRSS also introduced a new salmon species, Qualicum chinook salmon, into qathet.

Lang Creek is monitored by the Powell River Salmon Society. The Lang Creek watershed includes Haslam and Duck lakes. The Salmon Society has increased salmon populations at Lang Creek, Willingdon Creek, Mouat Bay Creek, Whittal Creek, Myrtle Creek, Tla’amin River, Theodosia River, Park Creek, and Deighton Creek.

The other two medium spawns, Tla’amin River and Okeover River, are faced with many of the same issues as Theodosia, with sea lions, floods, and droughts.

“Lots of people don’t realise this, but Appleton Creek is actually a huge component to Sliammon Creek’s coho run,” says Pat.

Erik says that Appleton Creek also spills into Sliammon Lake.

“Appleton has a very good kokanee population, which I believe means that Sliammon Lake also has a kokanee population, and was once a historic sockeye salmon run.

“Currently, there are coho that are able to make it up the Appleton Falls. I know sockeye would be able to do the same. I’d like to get more research done on this watershed.”

Sliammon Lake currently has a weir dam placed on it. A weir dam controls the flow of streams.

Erik says there are talks of replacing the weir with a new design that would make it easier for salmon to get past.

qathet’s three medium salmon spawns are doing quite well, although Pat says there are some concerns.

“An issue with these systems is that the introduction of chinook has negatively impacted the other native species, like the coho and steelhead. There are only steelhead in the medium streams, and their populations are bad,” says Pat. “Sometimes too much good can cause harm, and that’s what’s happened here. The rivers aren’t in terrible shape, but they aren’t great either.”

As for small stream runs, or creeks, most of them are salmon-bearing, this is because most of these streams are not dammed.

Some of these streams include Myrtle Creek, Whittal Creek, Jefferd Creek, Deighton Creek, Saltery Creek, McGuffie Creek, Schonfield Creek, Plumber Creek, Willingdon Creek, Emmonds Beach creeks, Lund Creek, Craig Road’s creek, and many more all along qathet’s coastline.

“All these creeks share the same kind of base-run spawning salmon; chum, coho, pink, and sea-run cutthroat,” says Pat.

Erik says that within the past few years, Tla’amin and DFO have started counting salmon returns at Plumber Creek.

“We have been recording between 3,000 and 4,000 salmon returning each year,” Erik says. “Willingdon Creek is also neat because the Salmon Society had reintroduced chum, which had very, very good survival rates, so the returns were huge.”

Over on Texada Island, coho and chum can be spotted in many different streams.

Texada Island Salmon Enhancement president Mark Robert says that there are rumoured salmon spawns in Lagoon Creek and Pocahontas Creek, however no fish have been spotted in either in over 20 years.

“There are currently small spawns at Rumbottle Creek, Gillies Bay Creek, Mouat Bay Creek, and Anderson Bay Creek,” Mark says.

While the number of salmon returning to Texada Island creeks is unknown, Mark says there is an estimation of 100 to 300 chum and coho salmon spawning each year in Gillies Bay Creek.

Rumbottle, Mouat Bay, and Anderson Bay Creeks coho and chum populations are unknown.

“We know there are fish in these creeks, because we have found salmon in fry traps and have found them when Lafarge has done water tests,” says Mark.

Texada Island Salmon Enhancement volunteers have been releasing chum fry for the past 20 years in Mouat Bay Creek through DFO. The fry are from the PRSS.

As of 2022, these are all the places in qathet where salmon are spawning or possibly spawning.

But what about all the streams and rivers where salmon historically spawned but no longer do?

Besides the massive loss of salmon from both the Powell and Lois Lake watersheds, there are a couple other smaller streams that lost salmon species due to dams as well.

Historically, Van Anda Creek and Cranby Creek on Texada were salmon spawns, although no coho or chum have been spotted in Van Anda Creek in over 50 years.

100 years ago, the Unwin Lakes were dammed by logging companies. The dam decimated the coho, chum, and sockeye salmon populations. Because of the dam, the sockeye in Unwin evolved into kokanee.

Pat says that Myrtle Creek once had a sockeye salmon run that went into Hammil (West) Lake. “After Paradise Valley was logged, and Myrtle Creek was dammed in multiple areas by farmers, sockeye salmon died off.”

Although there are no more sockeye, Myrtle Creek does still get spawning coho, chum, pink, and sea-run cutthroat, and some of these fish make as far up the creek as behind the airport.

While almost all of qathet’s sockeye salmon populations have evolved into kokanee in dammed lakes, there are a few sockeye returning to Theodosia River, and occasionally to other streams, too.

There are still many creeks and rivers left in qathet that have yearly coho, chum, pink, chinook salmon, and sea-run cutthroat returns.

qathet’s sockeye populations may have a future too.

In 2012, Erik Blaney, LGL Limited, and Acuacoustics Incorporated studied the possibility of sockeye reintroduction on Powell Lake.

While this study found Powell Lake had low pH, phosphorus, and zooplankton levels, the study group found that it is possible to reintroduce sockeye into Powell Lake. The only obstacle: how to get salmon past Powell Lake’s dam.

Erik says that in the Lower Mainland, Alouette Lake, salmon are transported over the dam by a fish cannon. The Alouette Lake salmon are caught in a fish trap below the dam, then are then handled by humans who send the salmon in a tube that shoots them over the dam into the reservoir on the other side.

“I think if we were to reintroduce sockeye to Powell Lake, we would need to use a fish cannon for the first four to five years,” says Erik.

“We would need to shoot over other species like chum, coho, and pink to help boost Powell Lake’s zooplankton. When fish die, they provide nutrients to watersheds, these nutrients feed zooplankton.”

Not only did the Powell Lake study find that sockeye could be reintroduced, but based on experience from sockeye reintroduction studies done in the Coquitlam and Alouette lakes, where portions of the kokanee populations started swimming out to sea again, Erik and his team found that Powell Lake’s current kokanee population could potentially be used as a genetic source for a sockeye population as well.

“We found that kokanee around one or two years old were small enough to fit past the Powell Lake dam’s spillway gate trash rack,” says Erik. “The kokanee would escape when Brookfield released water. Four or five years later these kokanee were returning as sockeye, although they were not able to spawn because of the dam.”

Pat says there are two types of kokanee.

“There is Ice Age kokanee and sockeye-kokanee, both are pretty much two different species at this point. Ice Age kokanee are a darker colour and live in deeper water, these are sockeye salmon that were landlocked in the Ice Age era and cannot be reverted into sockeye salmon.

“The other kind of kokanee is sockeye-kokanee, which can change within two generations. Sockeye are one of the most adaptable salmon.”

Reintroducing sockeye and other salmon species into watersheds isn’t just taking place in qathet.

In British Columbia’s Interior, the Columbia River runs into the United States. The Columbia River has been dammed for 80 years, and has 14 dams along it.

Before these dams, millions of salmon spawned in the Columbia River. In 2019, the Syilx Okanagan, Ktunaxa, and Secwepemc First Nations together with the governments of BC and Canada collaborated on a three-year reintroduction project to bring back chinook and sockeye into Columbia River. The study is still continuing.

Not every reintroduction project is successful.

Salmon stopped spawning in Coquitlam Lake in 1914, after a dam had been built. The Kwikwetlem First Nation started the reintroduction project in 2002. The goal was to restore a self-sustaining sockeye population. 5,000 sockeye smolts were reintroduced into Coquitlam Lake in 2017. In 2020, a single sockeye salmon and 100 coho salmon returned to spawn.

Similarly, Alouette Lake was dammed in 1926, and stopped chinook, chum, coho, pink, sockeye, sea-run cutthroat, and steelhead salmon from spawning.

In 2005 during a tracking experiment with coho, the Alouette River Management Society had BC Hydro open the dam’s spillway to see if coho fry would travel through. While the coho did pass through the spillway, kokanee also made it through and headed off to sea.

In 2007 the first sockeye group returned to Alouette Lake; scientists tested the DNA of 22 of the returned fish and found that these ‘sockeye’ were some of the escaped kokanee from 2005. Although it started as an accident, BC Hydro, in agreement with the Alouette River Management Society, began leaving the spill gate open in the spring, letting kokanee escape each year, which return as sockeye, or as the team reported “sockanee.” So far, the biggest sockeye return into Alouette lake was 85 fish, in 2020.

In 1954, in the Okanagan Valley, the McIntyre dam was built in the Skaha Lake, Okanagan Lake, Vaseux Lake, and Osoyoos Lake watershed. And you guessed it, ruined the salmon runs. In 2009, the McIntryre dam was rebuilt to include a fish passage design, and now has yearly sockeye returns. In 2021, the Okanagan Nation Alliance reintroduced chinook into Skaha Lake, in hopes of seeing around 10,000 fish return in the next four or five years.

Locally, besides the reintroduction study on Powell Lake, Tla’amin Nation is also currently working on a study of the Unwin Lakes. This study started in 2020 and is currently out of its first phase and onto what comes next. Tla’amin is looking at reintroducing sockeye and coho into Unwin Lake, as well as reintroducing chum into the lower reaches of Unwin Creek.

“It is so important to bring the sockeye and other salmon species back. Salmon are an important food source and benefit everyone in the whole region,” Erik says.

Standing back on the rocky bank of the Powell River, the ghost salmon might re-exist some day through the research of Tla’amin Nation and the passion qathet residents of keeping Pacific salmon alive.

If the ghost salmon are reintroduced, hopefully, they will thrive like the salmon of the Okanagan Valley, and not like the scarce salmon of Coquitlam Lake.

Abby Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, qathet Living