Salmon Recovery in the Brunette River

It has been 50 years of sustained effort to keep the salmon-bearing Brunette River hospitable enough for the Coho, Pink and Chinook salmon to work their way up every year to spawn. Are they under threat again?

In the 1950s, the river was declared dead. Wending its way through many Lower Mainland communities and ultimately through New Westminster to the Fraser River, it was at one time the most productive salmon rivers in the area. 

It took 15 years of valiant effort to clean up the river, spearheaded by the Sapperton Fish and Game Club along with allies gained along the way. In 1984, the first salmon re-appeared to great applause and they've been coming back ever since, despite many new challenges.

Elmer Rudolph, the current President of the Sapperton Fish and Game Club, is worried. The Trans Mountain pipeline's proposed route comes mighty close to the Brunette River. The potential for harm to the river is great. Destruction of the riparian zone during construction and bitumen leakage into the river and its tributaries are concerns that loom large.

On top of that, climate change is also wreaking havoc. With the more extreme weather events, the river experiences, on the one hand, very dry periods that jeopardize river levels for fish survival, and on the other hand, heavy rain events that can sweep the fish right out of the river.

Rudolph, who was the first to witness the return of the salmon, tells the amazing tale of how a dead river was brought back to life, despite a negative prognosis. He also is full of stories of all the battles fought since the salmons' return too. And they are considerable. It is a tale of persistence, hard work, and activism at its best.

It is documented that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that the salmon returns to the Brunette Rivers were sometimes so large that some fish were pushed up on its banks for lack of room to swim. At one time, these fish sustained 10,000 aboriginal people that lived on the banks of the Fraser.

With the development of industry in the early years of New Westminster, mostly on the river banks below the  current Royal Columbia Hospital location, the river became seriously polluted and died. Now, during good years, 5,000 Chum Salmon and 300 Coho return.The Pink salmon population has been low. 

The Club is constantly working to ensure that the main elements exist that make for good fish habitat: clean, aerated water; food – insects that live in the water and that fall from trees; shade – river-bordering trees and shrubs to keep it cool; and deep pools for the fish to find respite from prey and from rushes of water during heavy rains.

It is only with love and care of the community that this urban river will survive. A great deal of effort has gone into its maintenance for half a century. Will the new threats end its viability? 

by: Susan Millar, March, 2020

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