Jim Van Tine points to a sloping grassy marsh bank in a tranquil pond populated by ducks and surrounded by a mix of salmonberry shrubs and alder and cottonwood in the heart of the Campbell River estuary.
The site – Mill Pond in the Baikie Island Reserve – was a brownfield site just over 20 years ago, stuffed with log dams and surrounded by lumberyards, Van Tine said.
“It was completely barren,” said Van Tine, one of the founding architects of the estuary revitalization plan that has transformed the area over the past two decades.
Sensitive riparian habitat – the zone of vegetation along wetlands, streams and rivers so vital to fish and wildlife – has been either buried or dredged up to meet the needs of sawmills or other industries that have dominated the estuary for most of the 20th century.
Small channels were dug in large swamps so that huge log dams could be pushed up sensitive waterways to be closer to the mills or stored in the purpose-built pond.
Tons of rock and gravel were dumped on the wetlands to create lumber yards and yards, said the retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada hatchery manager.
“They drove machines straight into the water, where they blew up the logs, pulled them out [and] put them back,” he said.
“We had a fisheries scientist here and we searched the area and couldn’t find a single remnant of what could make fish food.”
Just over 20 years ago, the Campbell River estuary was a brownfield site. Its restoration and transformation illustrates what can be achieved as governments and conservation groups undertake a massive effort to save critical ecosystems.
But a downturn in the forestry sector and the resulting mill bankruptcy has created an opportunity for the Vancouver Island city known as the salmon capital of the world to reclaim prime fish habitat.
In 1999, the city partnered with the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Tula Foundation to purchase Baikie Island and undertake an ongoing remediation effort that has become a showcase for the restoration of the estuary.
After an extensive process of investigation and planning, much of it facilitated by Van Tine as project manager, the teams began the long process of tearing up the concrete and uncovering a century of gravel, rocks and wood debris.
More than 38,000 cubic meters of fill was moved or trucked in the first phase to rebuild and plant the shoreline and create shallower waterways and secondary channels to create habitat for the five species of salmon and rainbow trout and cutthroat trout that use the estuary at various points in their life cycles.
Subsequent land purchases and years of work with significant community support followed before the nature reserve officially opened in 2012.
Transforming the estuary meant tackling one project at a time, strenuous work involving lots of digging and planting, and the stamina to withstand countless bureaucratic hurdles, Van Tine said.
“It took three years to plan a project and less than three months to do it,” he said.
Governments are funding a major effort to save estuaries
With drastic declines in wild salmon stocks linked to the worsening climate crisis, federal and provincial governments, in partnership with First Nations and conservation organizations, are undertaking massive efforts to restore salmon habitat and west coast estuaries.
A meeting point where salt and fresh water mix and intersect with the land, estuaries are nutrient-rich and bioproductive ecosystems that act as nurseries for fish and stopovers for migrating birds.
They also perform many valuable ecosystem services, such as filtering water, sequestering carbon and stabilizing shorelines. Already degraded by development and industry, coastal estuaries are increasingly vulnerable to climate change due to rising seas, changes in rainfall and river levels, and acidification of oceans and water temperature changes.
In an effort to mitigate risk, Ottawa and British Columbia have allocated a combined $234 million over five years to protect and restore fish habitat, much of it in estuaries, which make up only 3% shoreline, but which are essential for a wide variety of aquatic species. and land animals and 80% of all waterfowl.
The K’ómoks First Nation recently received $1.4 million to restore the estuary of the Puntledge and Tsolum rivers in the heart of their traditional territory on Vancouver Island.
Similar to Campbell River, the nation is seeking to restore an abandoned industrial sawmill site to its origins as a key salmon migration corridor.
While restoring the Campbell River estuary exemplifies how much can be achieved in a relatively short time, each project requires a unique plan and approach, Van Tine said.
“There are some similarities, but there is no cookie-cutter approach to estuaries,” he said.
Along with the return of fish and wildlife to the estuary, the nature reserve is a valuable recreation center for kayakers, dog walkers and birdwatchers, he said.
Estuary restoration requires continued commitment
Recovering an ecosystem is a never-ending project, Van Tine said, adding that he grew old out of pick and shovel work.
Much of the maintenance or improvements to the estuary is coordinated by the Greenways Land Trust, he said.
The charitable conservation group commands a squadron of volunteers to fight the ongoing onslaught of invasive plants while planting native species, banding Canada geese, setting up bird and bat boxes and mapping plants in endangered such as the deltoid balsamroot.
“Our workforce is largely made up of school-aged children,” joked Greenways chief executive Cynthia Bendickson.
Student groups and youth organizations involved in environmental education programs bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to uproot or hack invasive species such as Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry, iris yellow and purple loosestrife.
The initial impetus to restore the estuary was to create habitat for salmon, but there has been a gradual shift to a whole ecosystem approach to creating habitat for many different species to improve biodiversity, Bendickson said. .
“Working around invasive species is often not sexy conservation,” she said.
“But that’s definitely… where I think we as an organization can really have a huge impact because we have that community involvement.”
When invasive species outcompete native plants, the resulting monoculture does not create a resilient ecosystem.
“Without all the work we have done, the estuary would be different from what it is today and would be much poorer for all kinds of wildlife,” she added.
But the overabundance of some animals can be problematic, Bendickson said.
Canada geese, which now reside year-round in the estuary and are renowned for their appetites and ability to poop, can completely devour sedges from marsh shorelines, leading to their erosion, she said. declared.
In response, the Wei Wai Kum Nation Guardians and Guardians of the Mid-Island Estuaries Society replant the grasses and erect fences of woven saplings over the marshes.
The structures keep geese away because they obstruct landings and takeoffs, Bendickson said.
Besides the geese, another challenge to the preservation of the estuary is the constant search for funding.
While a lot of upper government money is currently flowing in to begin work on the estuary, there doesn’t appear to be much funding available to support long-term restoration, Bendickson said.
Constantly trying to find lump sums for large projects or even funds for maintenance work on the reserve beyond what the city provides makes it difficult for the charity to commit to planned projects on extended periods, she said.
“I think these ecosystems need continued funding over longer periods of time,” Bendickson said.
“Restoring the Campbell River estuary is not a three-year project.
Rochelle Baker/Local Journalism Initiative/National Observer of Canada