Escoumins River

January 4, 2014

There are times when an obstacle can turn into an opportunity. That’s not usually the case when a dam blocks access to what were once fertile salmon grounds, except if the dam in question is scheduled to be dismantled.

That was the opportunity presented to the Escoumins River Salmon Management Corporation (Corporation de gestion de la rivière à saumons des Escoumins, CGRSE) when it received word that the dam at the mouth of the Escoumins would be torn down.

The group had spent some 50 years working to restore salmon stocks in the Escoumins River on Quebec’s north shore so, even though the timing of the dam’s removal was uncertain, the fact that it could eventually happen encouraged the folks with CGRSE to start thinking big!

The Escoumins River had long been used by logging companies to transport their wood to the local mill. That activity, plus the dam, had essentially destroyed the Escoumins River’s once robust salmon run.

“Salmon had been absent from the river for over 100 years,” says Yves Demers, director of CGRSE, adding that the organization had worked to change that situation over the last half century, building a wooden fishway to bypass the dam and making other improvements to the upriver habitat.

“While these efforts have met with moderate success, with the dam gone, the river could finally be restored to its natural state,” says Demers. “The time had finally come for us to propose a comprehensive strategy that would ensure that the Escoumins’ salmon stocks had every chance to return to their original level.”

The strategy was planned to roll out over five years. The first year’s activities, scheduled for the 2012 season, received close to $7,000 in funding from ASCF. Working with a team of supporters from government agencies such as the Watershed Development Organization of the Upper North Shore (l’Organisme des bassins versants de la Haute-Côte-Nord) and the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife, and non-government agencies such as Zec Nordique (Association de Chasse et Peche Nordique), CGRSE identified, measured and assessed each tributary of the Escoumins for its suitability as habitat for salmon. Four were chosen for further study and development, while three others were rejected due to factors such as their short length, shallowness, potential for poaching or use by vacationers.

The group also conducted a comprehensive literature search, using the information collected to make recommendations on how each viable tributary could be prepared to introduce parr and eventually welcome salmon back to its waters.

While conducting their studies the group also worked at raising local public awareness by posting notices of their activities and meeting with pertinent groups and individuals to explain their plan and discuss what people using the area could do, or not do, to ensure the project’s success.

“We were very encouraged with the progress we had made in our first year, and were looking forward to rolling out year two next spring,” says Yves Demers. The plans for 2013 included a clean-up of the viable tributaries to encourage salmon migration, work to render the areas around bridges and culverts more salmon-friendly, and liaison with government and others to improve regulations for use of the area to reflect the environmental concerns related to salmon survival.

“We were restoring habitat that was necessary to welcome the salmon back up the river once the dam was dismantled, whenever that would happen,” says Demers.

Then disaster struck and another opportunity emerged!

In October, 2012, the wooden fishway on the side of the dam caught fire. By the time the flames were extinguished, the fishway was gone and the dam had suffered extensive damage.

The opportunity? The dam was now a safety hazard and fish passage up the river was completely blocked. Due to the immediate urgency of the situation, CGRSE was able to leverage support to get the dam removed sooner rather than later. Both the provincial and municipal governments, as well as the Essipit Band Council and Hydro Quebec (through the Fédération Québécoise pour le Saumon Atlantique), provided funding.

If all goes according to plan, one thing is certain. When the funding is in place to execute their new, accelerated strategy, salmon supporters in the Escoumins area are going to be – well, if you’ll pardon the pun – as busy as beavers!