It may soon be the dawn of a healthier new era for Skwelwil’em and the Squamish River estuary – an immensely important place both ecologically and culturally, locally, nationally and internationally – as the Squamish community faces a defining moment and an unparalleled opportunity to restore this vital ecosystem and right historical wrongs.
Habitat restoration and reconciliation are the guiding principles of this powerful and long-overdue initiative, called Restore the Shore (aka the Central Estuary Restoration Project – CERP). Through this project we can build back Skwelwil’em and the Squamish River estuary for the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) and for the greater Squamish community’s benefit, today and into the future. Restore the Shore is a federally and regionally significant coastal restoration project that will benefit many species that rely on the health of the estuary, including at-risk Chinook salmon, endangered Southern Resident orcas and migratory birds to name a few.
The importance of this project is further underscored by the rarity of estuaries. Among the most productive ecosystems on earth, estuaries make up only 2.3 percent of BC’s coastline and provide essential natural services like pollutant and sediment filtration, flood water absorption, storm surge dissipation, climate change moderation and carbon sequestration.
Over 3,650-square kilometers of coastal rainforest drain from the headwaters of the Squamish River and its tributaries into Skwelwil’em and the Squamish River estuary. The estuary is nourished and created by the flow of the Squamish River’s fresh, glacial-fed waters as it merges into the Pacific Ocean’s saline Átl’ka7tsem / Howe Sound. With the restoration of the estuary we can regain and re-naturalize more than 144 hectares of this valuable estuarine habitat – equivalent to the size of over 200 soccer fields – for salmon and the interconnected ecosystems that the estuary helps sustain.
The estuary today is only able to support a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of smolting salmonids that rely on it yearly as a safe refuge. Today, those tiny fingerling salmon have little chance of survival as they are spat out directly into the ocean instead of making their way into the nursery-like environment of the estuary. This is largely due to the Squamish Training Berm, which was built in 1971 and designed to redirect the river to facilitate port development, predominantly a large coal port that never came to be. It cut right through the Squamish Nation’s Skwelwil’em village site and alienated the river from its estuary, thus devastating salmon runs and severely compromising the vital ecological function of the estuary.
The berm was also installed without any engagement or consultation whatsoever with the Squamish Nation, who have a deep connection with the land and salmon-rich waters of Skwelwil’em and the estuary; this connection is integral to aspects of their culture. Today the berm serves as a symbol of the historic and ongoing impact of colonization and this is why its modification is a much overdue and needed step in reconciliation.
One of the authors of this piece, Councilor Joyce Williams of the Squamish Nation, shares that the Squamish Nation peoples are proud to call Átl’ka7tsem / Howe Sound home: “For many years, the inherent value of estuaries like Skwelwil’em were not recognized, and this resulted in damage to the estuaries themselves, which then caused damage to our communities and to other parts of the environment. We are at a time right now that our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people are really starting to reclaim their connection to this part of our territory.”
Williams continues: “Many of our families have had relationships with this place and the estuary since time immemorial. Our stories, our experiences and now the science of our decades of restoration initiatives tell us this is a resilient place. Our people are once again visiting Skwelwil’em to learn about the diverse ecosystem it provides, witness the herring spawn or just enjoy an afternoon walk. This restoration project will help to continue fostering a connection with our respected lands. As our lands heal and are revitalized, so is our culture and connection to it. This connection will continue to strengthen once again with continued and improved recognition of the importance of estuaries for the community as a whole.”
Once exceptionally rare, we can again hear the whoosh of a whale’s blow and see the silver flash of spawning herring and anchovy in Átl’ka7tsem / Howe Sound with greater regularity. This was made possible by prioritizing the greater good and the health of all living beings that rely on this precious ecosystem. With Restore the Shore, this timely and critically important estuary restoration project, we have the chance to dip our paddles into the water again to propel this positive momentum forward.
Now is the time to return the estuary back to itself. As our climate warms and we come to understand the importance of acting on these catalytic moments, let’s take this opportunity to right historical wrongs, and reclaim this magnificent place for the at-risk Chinook salmon that need our help to survive, and the vast community of species and people that rely on the estuary for shelter, food and a sacred way of life.
Learn more about Restore the Shore by visiting restoretheshore.ca