SQUAMISH – A Canadian National Railway (CN) train derailed on Aug. 5, 2005, spilling sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River. The spill killed approximately 90 per cent of the fish in the river at that time. Hardest hit were juvenile steelhead, rainbow trout and coho, followed by adult chinook and pink salmon. The food chain (algae, insects) in the river appears to have recovered quickly.
Following the spill, a Technical Committee consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Environment (MOE), the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Squamish First Nation, the District of Squamish and CN was created to determine strategies and options for recovering all affected species as fast as reasonably possible.
Under provincial steelhead policy, the Cheakamus is designated a “wild” river to preserve the integrity and biodiversity of the steelhead population. From the steelhead recovery options reviewed by the Technical Committee, MOE is recommending proceeding with proven habitat enhancement techniques to replenish the river’s steelhead population. This recommendation will be referred back to the Technical Committee.
To address angling concerns, the Ministry of Environment is proposing augmentations to the nearby Mamquam River and expanded hatchery production in the Capilano and Stave rivers in the Lower Mainland.
Based on the lessons learned from other systems heavily impacted by spills and natural disasters, MOE believes that habitat enhancement will allow the river to fully recover within 15 years and does not pose additional risk by introducing hatchery fish to the native stock.
Unlike steelhead, pink salmon stocks have traditionally been moved around within a broad geographical area without compromising the integrity of the wild stock. As such, hatchery-raised pinks are currently being released into the Cheakamus as part of the recovery effort. The pinks are raised at a Chilliwack hatchery but are originally from the Cheakamus.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is also raising pink salmon in a net-pen at the mouth of the Squamish River for release into the watershed. These pinks are originally from the Indian River (Burrard Inlet).
Recent Public Meeting
The most recent public meeting took place on Wednesday, Feb. 8 in Squamish to provide an update on the spill recovery. Information shared included:
· Clean-up of the spill site.
· Findings of the initial fish impact assessment.
· Assessment of water and impact on public health.
· Recovery actions taken to date.
· Ongoing assessment of the impact on fish and other organisms in and around the river.
· Creation of a stakeholder committee for public participation.
CN is required to complete a draft recovery plan with advice from the Technical Committee and present this to the public within the next two to three months. CN is also responsible for other ongoing work, including a monitoring plan to track recovery, and an ongoing impact assessment to determine spill impacts to species that could not be assessed immediately following the spill.
CN is responsible for the total cost of the restoration efforts, which is expected to run in the millions of dollars.
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