February 6, 2004 The Comox Valley Echo, "Restoring the Puntledge"

Restoring the Puntledge
Larry Peterson - Puntledge River Restoration Committee

After decades of closure, the Puntledge River was open to sport fishing for the third year in a row. The fishery closed at the end of last month, but during the season, which started October 1, there were 12 to 30 cars at the Condensory Bridge every day.

One day in October, four motorhomes, each carrying two Italian fishers, found their way to the Puntledge. One day last month, four Japanese visitors roamed its banks.

The abundance of fish and the generous but reasonable opportunities to retain coho, chum and Chinook were strokes of good fortune and good management.

So how has all this come about?

Many factors and many people played have played roles. First, about six years ago, the Courtenay Fish and Game Club, the local chapter of the Steelhead Society and other concerned citizens staged a large rally to insist on a predator control program for seals in the lower river. These seals were taking up semi-permanent residency in the inter-tidal zone and intercepting adult spawners on their way up-river. More importantly, the seals were feasting on young, downstream migrants on their way out to sea. Over half of all Puntledge River smolt production was being intercepted and consumed.

Secondly, the Puntledge River Restoration Committee reformed and began lobbying politicians, provincial and federal fisheries and BC Hydro to initiate and carry out a revitalization program which would see stepped-up fish production so there would be enough bodies out there to prejudice the odds towards survival instead of against it.

The second half of the equation was habitat improvement so that fish had abundant areas to spawn and rear and suitable water flows to guarantee efficiency of spawning and rearing.

Over the past five years, the Puntledge River Hatchery staff have been pumping out coho, Chinook, pinks and chums to the point that salmon production has almost returned to historical levels.

BC Hydro has paid for and worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for side-channel construction and gravel placement at such places as Bull Island (a semi-natural, $200,000 project just upstream of Stotan Falls), the power-line area and the Courtenay game side-channel.

Altogether, about $227,000 has been spent on restoration.

BC Hydro has guaranteed flows which are favorable for fish and provincial fisheries has both a cutthroat and steelhead program in their early stages. There is a spirit of cooperation which is showing obvious positive results.

There is also another part to the effort. Ocean survival in the past four years has been excellent with subsiding of El Nino and the rich upwellings of nutrients in the North pacific.The impact on salmon species has been pronounced and positive. Whether conditions are also starting to favor steelhead and cutthroat is still unknown, and all we can do is continued to plan and work and hope. We also need to get an estuary complexing study, still in the planning stages, under way.

We are not there yet. Much work and good fortune are still needed, but the Puntledge is on its way to once again becoming a world-class river.

Meanwhile, funding applications for monitoring Bull Island and further restoration on other parts of the Puntledge have been submitted to BC Hydro’s Bridge Coastal Program.

The largest project being considered is restoration of spawning habitat for summer-run Chinook downstream of Comox Lake Dam.

Courtesy of The Comox Valley Echo – Dec 16, 2003