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Officials probing mass fish deaths on the Cowichan River

Most dead fish have been found above Horseshoe Bend

A significant number of fish have been found dead in the canyon area near Skutz Falls along the Cowichan River, and authorities from multiple agencies, as well as members of the community, are trying to figure out why.

“There’s a mysterious thing going on in that the fish in the main stem of the river near Horseshoe Bend are showing [up] dead so there’s a big process right now trying to solve that,” Brian Houle, environmental manager of Paper Excellence’s Crofton mill said on July 13.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is aware, as is Cowichan Tribes, Houle said, and everyone is working to figure out why the fish are dying.

A spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said Conservation and Protection was notified of the fish kill on July 10 though the ORR (observe, record, report) line.

“The Department would like to thank the members of the public who alerted us to this event,” said Leri Davies. “Fishery officers are currently looking into the incident. At this time, DFO cannot comment further.”

A press release issued Friday from Cowichan Tribes noted that “the loss of any number of fish is very concerning. Lower river flows and higher water temperatures can increase the stress on fish, making it more difficult for them to withstand other pressures.”

All of the agencies are working together to determine the cause.

Houle said that on Friday, June 30 officials with the mill, (and regulators of the weir), dropped the water levels flowing from Cowichan Lake into the river to 4.5 cubic metres per second, to conserve water through the summer. It’s become an annual practice.

Changing the flow of the river has many impacts and variables and as a result Catalyst runs the weir under regulatory guidance.

“We apply for authority to deviate from ideal conditions,” Houle explained of the process. When the flow is lowered, biologists are required to go out onto the river and and ensure any environmental issues related to the drop in flow are mitigated.

The extra oversight is critical but the eyes that found the dead fish weren’t of professionals, but a father and daughter swimming in the deep pool. The young girl saw something shiny on the riverbed and dove down with a mask only to find it was hundreds of dead fry.

Houle said things went swimmingly for the first 10 days or so following the flow change, and tens of thousands of fish were moved to the river’s main stem.

“The [biologists’] focus is to get the fish to the main stem because that’s where they’re safe,” Houle explained. “We’ve had our qualified professionals in the river ensuring just that.”

For the last several years, when the flow is lowered, community members and volunteers often help the biologists transfer the fish who become stranded in pools or find themselves in disconnected side channels and relocate them to the main stem.

Long-time riverside resident and Cowichan river steward Joe Saysell is one of those who keeps a keen eye on the river, its flow, and the fish.

He’s not so sure why the fish died.

“We’re mulling it all over right now, about what’s the problem,” he said. “I’m finding it so frustrating. You go to all this work moving fry early to try and save the poor things and then this happens to them. It’s really frustrating.”

Saysell said the most dead fish have been found above Horseshoe Bend, right below the falls in what they call the deep pool near the bridge over the river by Mayo Lake Road.

“I’ve been discussing it with DFO and Conservation and we thought it was an oxygen level in that pool at the bottom that wasn’t very good but when the pool was measured, the oxygen level was actually OK,” he said, adding that the temperature of the river was also quite good.

“We don’t know what it is,” Saysell continued. “They’ve sent the samples away to the lab but we don’t know how long until they’ll come back. These fish seem to be coming into that pool over the falls. It’s got to be something right in that area, in my mind.”

On top of that, it isn’t young fish that are dying either. And not just one type.

Saysell said the fish he collected were nearly all coho salmon while another fellow collected nearly all rainbow trout and what’s more, the real puzzle is that they’re not this year’s fish. They’re about two years old, he said.

“It’s just a heartbreak to see this happen,” Saysell said. “I’m praying that nobody has put something toxic in the river. That’s my big fear.”

While they carry on trying to solve the mystery, Saysell said he and researchers will likely have to go from pool to pool from his house south of Lake Cowichan, all the way down to Skutz Falls and test the water in every pool along the way.

“We’re really, really concerned,” he said. “I just pray that somebody hasn’t done some something super, super stupid.”

As part of DFO’s work to end illegal activity, the Department asks the public for information on activities of this nature or any contravention of the Fisheries Act and regulations. Anyone with information can call the toll-free violation reporting line at 1-800-465-4336, or email the details to

Sarah Simpson

About the Author: Sarah Simpson

I started my time with Black Press Media as an intern, before joining the Citizen in the summer of 2004.
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