‘It’s amazing’: Chinook salmon are returning in surprising numbers to Cowichan River

WatchThousands of Chinook salmon have returned to spawn in the Cowichan River this fall. Skye Ryan has more.

Thousands of Chinook salmon have returned to spawn in the Cowichan River this fall, and biologists are hopeful that the run is bouncing back from near extinction in 2009.

“I like to catch fish,” said Greg Joseph Jr., 7, who scrambled for his dad’s fishing rod on the banks of the Cowichan River Tuesday, to reel in a Chinook salmon for his family’s smoker.

Fishing the Cowichan River is a tradition of fall that goes back generations in Cowichan Tribes. As spawning Chinook salmon are caught to feed the community through the winter.

“I love it. I get to teach my boys what my dad taught me,” said the boy’s father, Greg Joseph Sr.

But there was a real fear that the Chinook salmon run would go extinct as the Cowichan River filled with gravel over decades. Droughts further dried up stretches of it and heatwaves raised summer water temperatures, killing off fish. In 2009, the numbers dropped down to just 500 pairs of Chinook returning.

Yet, as of Tuesday, more than 8,000 Chinook had returned to their Cowichan River spawning grounds.

“I am just absolutely grateful that we have halted the decline that’s been happening since 2009. We were so, so close to actually losing Cowichan Chinook,” said fisheries biologist for Cowichan Tribes, Tim Kulchisky.

The improvement is the result of years of conservation efforts by Cowichan Tribes, who have worked to restore the river to its course before logging operations changed the river. During the 1880s and into the early 1990s, loggers used dynamite to blast dozens of waterfalls and rapids along the Cowichan River in an attempt to make it easier to move logs down the river.

“Falls and potential obstructions were basically dynamited to expedite log flow,” said Kulchisky.

According to Kulchisky, tonnes of gravel have been removed in 2021 to improve the flow of the river and shore up previous bends that were blown through, and promising returns of salmon showed it is helping.

“They’re much, much happier. There’s a definite relief,” he said.

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Skye RyanSkye Ryan

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