Conservation groups demand improved fish passage on Nicomekl Sea Dam

The City of Surrey is planning a replacement for the sea dam on the Nicomekl River that advocates fear will continue to trap salmon fry as they make their way to the ocean, allowing seals and sea lions to feast on them by the tens of thousands. 

Every spring, volunteers at the Nicomekl Hatchery release 250,000 juvenile salmon into the Nicomekl River as part of its mission to rebuild Chinook, coho and chum salmon runs. But rather than just running the usual gauntlet of predators, the young fish concentrate at the sea dam near King George Blvd., waiting for rain heavy enough to trigger the release of water. 

Likewise, every fall returning Chinook coho and chum are forced to wait at the mouth of the Nicomekl for waters high enough to allow them to enter the river to return to their spawning grounds. 

“The only way the salmon can come back upstream is when we get heavy rains that force the gates open,” said Nicomekl Enhancement Society President Nigel Easton. “Otherwise, they sit down in the basin, where the seals happily devour them.” 

The sea dam is being replaced as part of Surrey’s flood mitigation strategy. In 2020, the federal government announced $76 million in funding to resolve coastal flooding in Surrey, Delta and Semiahmoo First Nation. 

The City has installed mechanical gates on the rivers that serve the Serpentine and Tynehead hatcheries, which allow controlled access to spawners and juvenile salmon. A similar design was on the books for the Nicomekl, but that plan has mysteriously vanished. 

“Three years ago, the NES was presented with a plan from the City of Surrey that would have incorporated a new sea dam into the replacement of the bridge at King George with controlled fish passage, and the plan was posted on the city website, but was later removed,” said Easton.  

Easton and other hatchery volunteers are frustrated with the City’s course of action 

The City of Surrey anticipates that some form of fish passage will be installed when the sea dam is replaced. 

“As part of the design process of the replacement Nicomekl Sea Dam, opportunities for improved fish passage will be assessed and incorporated into the replacement Sea Dam,” said the City of Surrey engineering department. “We anticipate that the replacement Sea Dam will provide fish passage for a wide range of water levels during the fish migration period. There have not been any changes to the earlier design to-date. The City intends to commence the detailed design of the replacement Sea Dam over the next year and will involve a broad range of professionals to refine the earlier design.” 

NES is entirely run by about 50 volunteers. They operate a state-of-the-art hatchery on 232nd St in Langley affiliated with the B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF) to protect local salmon populations and provide education and advocacy to the public.  

“The City of Surrey is using the correct technology in other sea dams, so it isn’t like they don’t know what to do,” said BCWF executive director Jesse Zeman. “If hatchery programs are to succeed in recovering wild salmon populations, we need everyone pulling in the same direction.” 

“There are so many volunteer hours going into raising hatchery salmon and advocating for better protections for wild salmon that we need to be proactive about removing barriers to salmon passage caused by aging infrastructure and prioritize healthy watersheds and fish movement.,” he added. 

Since opening in 1991, the hatchery has been able to increase the number of returning salmon each year. They host a popular Open House each April where visitors can help release salmon into Hatchery Creek. 

“Our salmon brood stock seems to be increasing constantly,” said Easton. “This makes us feel very good, and I presume that the work we’ve done in the river system has produced the correct results.”    

They’ve recently partnered with the BCWF’s Fish Habitat and Riparian Stewardship team to survey the stream, monitor their water quality, and install native riparian plants to create a better habitat for spawning fish. 

The Nicomekl River Watershed starts in Aldergrove, through Langley and Cloverdale, and South Surrey, and drains into Mud Bay at Blackie Spit. It has a total length of 34 kilometres, and drainage area of 149 square kilometres. The river is home to coho, chum, Chinook, and pink salmon, steelhead and rainbow trout, and many other fish, as well as the other species of plants and animals that rely on the river.  

The November 2022 COSEWIC assessment of Chinook salmon that run though Boundary Bay, including those in the Nicomekl River, designated them “Threatened” due to low marine survival, bycatch, and fish culture effects. Experts believe that fewer than 1000 mature wild fish remain in the Boundary Bay population.   

“The survival of the endangered Boundary Bay Chinook salmon is in your hands,” pleads Nigel in a letter to Surrey’s Mayor and Council. “Please preserve our salmon and the efforts of our volunteer hatchery.”   

A report to Surrey City Council notes the challenges salmon face from sea dams and the correct solution, which has been applied to the Serpentine River sea dam. 

The report on the design of the Serpentine River Sea Dam replacement reads: “The existing sea dam structure will be over-topped as a result of projected sea level rise associated with climate change. Furthermore, the existing sea dam structure does not meet current seismic standards and has limited periods of fish passage, as fish passage is only provided during times the sea dam gates are open, which is typically during lower tides. 

The new sea dam structure is proposed to be located west of Highway 99, which will be downstream from its current location at King George Boulevard. The new structure will improve seismic resiliency, improve fish passage, and provide protection to surrounding agricultural area from flooding due to tidal surges and future sea level rise associated with climate change.” 

To learn more about the Nicomekl Enhancement Society, visit their website.

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