Integrating the latest science with First Nations principles will enhance a vital ecosystem
Flowing west from the Rockies into the Columbia River, Shuswap Creek is home to a variety of fish species, including salmon and the species-at-risk west slope cutthroat trout. Sharing the stream are also mountain whitefish and bull trout, keystone species that are vital to the ecosystem and culturally significant to the local Kenpesq’t people, also known as the Shuswap Band.
Concerned about the diminishing fish populations in Shuswap Creek, the Kenpesq’t community began work over a decade ago to identify the cause. With the creek running through the community, there was also concern about the creek’s ecosystem and its use as a water source, including the health of its species, the risk of it flooding and the quality and quantity of its water.
Now, the community has received multi-year funding from the Trust’s Ecosystem Enhancement Program. This program is designed to help maintain and improve ecological health and native biodiversity in a variety of Basin ecosystems, including wetlands, fish habitat, forests and grasslands.
With collaboration from community members, local landowners and local and provincial organizations, the community has started to restore and enhance over five kilometres of the 18-kilometre creek and its watershed.
The aim is to use the latest scientific techniques while working within the parameters of Kenpesq’t fundamental principles, such as sustainability, responsible stewardship, respect and self-sufficiency.
Mark Thomas is a Kenpesq’t Councillor. He says, “We will know the project has been successful when we see positive trends in aquatic communities and populations. Our commitment is to the long-term sustainability of the resources and people of the Columbia Valley.”
The Kenpesq’t community hired local biologist Jon Bisset to lead the project. “Shuswap Creek is a great project for this funding because there was already work done,” he says. “We can get our boots on the ground right away with the funds.”
They’ll use various means to study fish populations and water quality. For example, they’ll identify the total number of kilometres of the stream that’s home to fish and other aquatic species. They’ll study the vegetated areas along the streambanks, which serve many roles: keeping the channel stable, giving cover to aquatic animals, providing shade that reduces water temperatures, storing water and serving as food for the insects that fish and other animals feed on.
“We’ll also remove barriers to the movement of fish from one section to another.”
They’ll also look at the course of the channels to learn more about the stream habitat and fish movement, which indicate “the ability of the fish and their food sources to be able to move freely from one body of water to another, or from one section of the stream to another, to find food, spawn and lay eggs,” says Bisset. “We’ll also remove barriers to that movement.”
To do so, they’ll remove culverts and divert channels around existing barriers to fish movement. Other priorities include restoring sections of the stream that have been damaged, weighing and measuring fish, and estimating their populations.
Once they’ve restored this section—improving the ecosystem to the benefit of its native aquatic species, amphibians and other animals—they plan to “apply this approach to the rest of the tributaries between here and Golden,” says Thomas.
Bisset says, “With restoration, you can’t just do it with one biologist or one engineer, you need a lot of expertise…you need a variety of skills pulled together.” Therefore, the project is conducting a fisheries technology course in which the participants—four of whom are community members—engage in lectures and field work. “We’ll create opportunities for youth and others to get training and education, aligned with First Nations values, to build a career. It provides for a healthy community, long-term.”
Despite COVID-19, the project has been moving forward with only some delays and additional costs. To follow health guidelines, the training sessions have been kept small. And while the project is ahead of schedule on fieldwork, such as fish sampling, getting the appropriate teams onsite made it challenging to complete restoration designs and start building.
“We’re not in a rush to do things,” says Bisset. “The only priority is to do things right.”