BC’s Salish Sucker Threatened by Habitat Loss and Local Politicians

This story originally appeared on Chilliwack Today.

Written by Glen Thompson

Photo by Mike Pearson

Sumas Mountain is the last mountain in the Cascades range that continues north from Washington State. In the North Cascades a number of creatures have evolved that live nowhere else on earth. Two examples are the Salish Sucker and the Nootsack Dace.

These endangered fresh water fish are endemic to the area, occurring only in a few watersheds, mostly in the Fraser Valley.  Their numbers, like many Aquatic Species at Risk, have been in decline since the late 1960s.

The primary cause of the decline is habitat loss.  The habitat an endangered species needs for survival is called “Critical Habitat” and is legislated by the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA).  SARA requires Critical Habitat be identified and published in a recovery strategy document.

In January, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) released a joint recovery strategy for the Salish Sucker and the Nootsack Dace.  These fish share the same Critical Habitat. This is the second recovery strategy for the Nootsack Dace.

In September 2009, the first recovery strategy ended up the subject of a federal court case. Ecojustice, who legally represented the small minnow, stated “scientists on the Recovery Team mapped the location of its critical habitat and included those maps in a draft recovery strategy. However, DFO officials removed these maps from the final recovery strategy.”

Justice Campbell ruled in favour of the minnow and described the case as “a story about the creation and application of policy by the Minister in clear contravention of the law, and a reluctance to be held accountable for failure to follow the law.”

The new strategy includes Critical Habitat mapping for both species. Christianne Wilhelmson, of the Georgia Strait Alliance said she is “very satisfied” with the new strategy because “now it’s based on science.”  She went on to say she is “disheartened that 7 years have gone by and DFO is more interested in court than protecting species.”

Last December, the dispute between DFO and Aquatic Species at Risk resumed. This time it was the Critical Habitat of the Orca that was decided by the federal court. Once again the court ruled DFO was acting unlawfully stating, “The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans erred in law in determining that the critical habitat of the Resident Killer Whales was already legally protected by existing laws of Canada; … Ministerial discretion does not legally protect critical habitat within the meaning of section 58 of SARA, and it was unlawful for the Minister to have cited discretionary provisions of the Fisheries Act in the Protection Statement.”

The federal rulings set precedents for many species, including the Salish Sucker.

DFO is not the only threat to the Salish Sucker. Local politicians were quick to use media coverage of the recovery strategy to criticize its proposed remedies. MLA John Les presented himself as a defender of ALR farmland that supposedly may be rezoned to save the fish.

The Chilliwack Times ran a headline “Les fears expropriation without compensation.” The Times also printed a story that said when Chilliwack City Councilor Ken Huttema “heard the name Salish Sucker he couldn’t help but think of a mosquito,” and quoted him as saying: “If the mosquito were endangered, perhaps we wouldn’t be too upset about it.”

One wonders what other leaps of comparative logic Mr. Huttema contemplates.

Dr. Mike Pearson of the Salish Sucker Recovery Team, said the proposed setbacks Les objects to “are guidelines and there are no plans to change existing land use.” When asked about the importance of the Salish Sucker’s survival, he said “As you lose diversity, you lose flexibility for the future.” He said there are approximately 10,000 fish left in 10 populations and that “an event has a high chance of wiping out a population that small.”

Regarding their overall chance of survival, Pearson said “it’s too early to tell, it depends largely on what happens in the next 20 years.” He added “they’re a tough little fish, they can bounce back quickly.”  Time will tell if the recovery strategy and the resultant action plan prevents the extinction of the Salish Sucker.

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