Human Impact Threatens Sakinaw Sockeye

Only 80 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, scenic Sakinaw Lake is prime Sechelt Peninsula cottage country, abuzz with powerboats in summer. A threatened race of salmon also call Sakinaw home. These fish--the last population of sockeye to breed near the Strait of Georgia--became the focus of a bitter struggle after the federal government announced that it would not protect them under SARA, the Species at Risk Act, claiming that to do so might cost the commercial sockeye fishery tens of millions of dollars due to fishing closures. Dismayed conservationists disputed this claim and staked their own: that SARA had proven a failure in its first major test. The controversy erupted in October, when the clear waters of Sakinaw are silent and calm. It was high time, I felt, for a paddle.

Unlike most salmon, which prefer moving water, sockeye usually spawn in or near lakes; the Sakinaw sockeye lay their eggs on the lake's underwater beaches. One of its favourite beaches, unfortunately, has been turned into a boat ramp, and it was there that I launched my kayak. As I cruised out of the upper basin and into the deeper part of the lake, I marvelled at the summer homes, many of which would not look out of place in West Vancouver, with their fancy terraced gardens and expansive lawns.

Some folk on the Sunshine Coast consider the Sakinaw sockeye doomed. Up until 1987, 5,000 fish on average had returned to the lake to spawn. Since then the numbers have dropped steadily, to 200 in 1996 and 50 in 2002. In 2003 only three returnees--one male and two females--were counted. Not everyone has given up on the salmon, though. In 2002, just before the sockeye was designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a federal recovery team was formed. Even without SARA protection, this group of biologists, bureaucrats, property owners, and conservationists is trying to reverse the salmon's decline.

According to Grant McBain, Fisheries and Oceans Canada community advisor in the area, work will be undertaken to restore spawning habitat, make it easier for adult salmon to reenter the lake, and monitor predators (otters and seals). Human impacts on Sakinaw will be studied, as will water-level issues and marine survival rates for adult sockeye. "I think we've caught it just in time," said McBain of the struggle to revive the fish. In 2004, bolstered by a four-year hatchery supplementation program, about 100 salmon returned to spawn.

As I worked my way around the lake's 35-kilometre periphery, I found it easy to forget its salmon's troubles. Sakinaw has a startling beauty, with richly forested hillsides and, from some points, million-dollar views of the Coast Range. By late afternoon, I reached a group of tiny islets and pitched my tent in a flat, private spot. A western painted turtle caught some rays of sun on a nearby log. Common loons made mournful calls as I cooked dinner, and beaver swam back and forth.

The next day, I packed up and visited the mouth of the lake, where a short stream leads to the ocean. An outlet dam controls water levels, and returning adult salmon must negotiate a fishway there after their two-year sojourn in the north Pacific. They spend up to six months in the lake before spawning in late November. The Sakinaw sockeye's unusual lifestyle, as well as several distinct physical characteristics, mark them as genetically unique. Their habits, however, have also made them vulnerable; although commercial fishing is the main cause of their collapse, their precious spawning beaches have also become degraded by logging and construction activities.

Sakinaw itself, which is connected to a constellation of smaller lakes, is as unusual as its salmonid inhabitants. For one thing, its waters are meromictic, or permanently stratified. A 30-metre layer of water lies over a warmer layer that is anoxic, or lacking in oxygen, and so dense with dissolved mineral salts that it may not have mixed with the upper layer for thousands of years. On the lake's northern shore, columns of red-ochre marine-mammal and fish pictographs remind me that the sockeye was once an important food source for the Sechelt people. In fact, the word sockeye--or stsekay, with its hissing pronunciation--comes directly from Shashishalhem, the Sechelt's Salishan language.

"There were rockfish weirs at the mouth at one time," says Jerry Johnson, senior fisheries technician for the Sechelt First Nation and a member of the recovery team, "but the loggers destroyed them."

The team hopes to ease the sockeye's dilemma through the application of science, and the lakeshore landowners and local conservationists will work together to ensure that construction, boating, gardening, and waste disposal do not further degrade Sakinaw and its spawning beaches, and that any toxic runoff is eliminated. As I paddle back to my put-in point, I wish them success. Although the lake's users, and those who live around its shores, have a vital role to play in preserving the salmon, it is commercial fishers, ultimately, and government policy makers that have the final say.