West River, PEI

December 4, 2014

Once the Central Queens Branch of the PEI Wildlife Federation (CQWF) decided to expand its salmon habitat restoration efforts, there was no shortage of enthusiasm and support. The ambitious West River Enhancement Project takes in the whole of the West River watershed, about 25,320 ha with roughly 216 km of stream.

Two key elements have threatened the survival of Atlantic salmon in the watercourses of PEI.

The first is sediment—the soft, red sandstone that gives the island its striking red soil erodes easily, particularly where row-crop farming and clay roads occur.  The second was the 1950-60’s installation of highway culverts that limited or prevented fish from reaching spawning grounds.

“Culvert design has been improved in recent years to enable fish passage, but many of the old culverts continue to be a problem,” says Megan Harris, Conservation Biologist with the CQWF and Coordinator for the West River Watershed. “At the same time, the lack of effective soil conservation strategies in agriculture and road-building, until quite recently, has produced a historic load of in-stream sediment. The sediment, at times a metre deep, has smothered fish spawning and nursery grounds.”

The West River watershed problems were decades in the making, and the CQWF are under no illusions that there is a quick fix. “This is a long-term, 20- to 30-year project that will require sustained effort by the communities, landowners, volunteers and conservation organizations,” says Harris.

The Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation provided grants in 2011-2014, and measureable progress has been made on key goals. “We completed three major fish passage projects, restoring access for salmon and other finfish to areas in the watershed that had been blocked for decades,” says Harris. The access restoration work involved creating rock riffles below the roadway to increase the water height downstream, providing better access through the culverts.

“Rock riffle projects on PEI can be expensive,” says Harris. “Island rock is sandstone that erodes quickly, so we have to import granite rock from the mainland. The cost in rock for two projects was about $10,000. We were fortunate the provincial Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal covered those material costs for us.”

In-stream habitat restoration work included the flushing of sediment to expose buried gravel by removing excess alder growth and speeding the water. Mobilized sediment was intercepted with sediment traps and brush matting. Work in 2011 also included: a walking survey of the watershed to determine sources of sediment entering surface waters; development of a “priorities” list of locations for more sediment basins; and completion of the mapping of critical salmon habitats.

“We did electro-fishing and redd surveys in the fall and now have a map of redd locations” says Harris. “It is evident that certain areas in the watershed are very important to spawning Atlantic salmon and the CQWF will develop plans to protect these critical habitats.”

The project’s over-arching goal is to expand and implement the Watershed Management Plan to include the new West River territories. The long-range vision is a more cohesive effort by all communities within the watershed to restore and protect its habitats and develop recreation opportunities for residents and visitors alike.