I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting five of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted on January 18, 2022, the committee is meeting for its study of flood control and mitigation systems in British Columbia.
The meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House Order of November 25, 2021. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Just so that you are aware, the webcast will show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either the floor, English or French. Please inform me immediately if interpretation is lost, and we'll ensure it is restored before resuming. The “raise hand” feature at the bottom of the screen can be used if you wish to speak or alert the chair. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, and for those on video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself before speaking. When you are not speaking, your microphone should be on mute.
This is a reminder that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses for today.
From the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, we have Sarah Murdoch, senior director, Pacific salmon strategy initiative, Pacific region; and Mr. Brad Fanos, director, fish and fish habitat protection program, Pacific region.
I also want to welcome from Chilliwack—Hope, and from Abbotsford back to the committee. They've been past members on this committee.
Welcome back, gentlemen. I'm sure everything west coast is of the utmost importance to you guys as well. I look forward to your participation today.
We will now proceed with opening remarks for five minutes.
I don't know if Brad or Sarah is doing the opening remarks.
I would like to remind members as well that, when you're asking questions, I will be as strict as possible on the time. I'll tell you how much time you have, and hopefully you'll live within that. I don't like cutting people off, but I will if I have to.
Don't worry, anybody. This is not a motion I want to put on the table or anything like that. Don't ask for a recess.
I'll be quick, Mr. Chair.
Last week, Mrs. Desbiens wished me a happy birthday during a committee meeting. Today, I want to turn the tables. There's a rumour going around. According to my sources, it's her birthday today. Last week, she sung me Happy Birthday. I won't subject her to that, seeing as I'm a terrible singer, unlike her. I do want to wish her a happy birthday, though, and as a birthday gift, we could buy her a new headset to use at the next meeting.
Happy birthday, Mrs. Desbiens.
Bonjour and good afternoon, Mr. Chair and committee members.
My name is Sarah Murdoch, and I'm the senior director of the Pacific salmon strategy initiative. My colleague and I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this committee on behalf of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
We all share a deep concern for Pacific salmon and appreciate the committee's study on the potential impacts of flood mitigation systems on this important species. This concern is rooted in the department's core mandate of fish conservation and protection.
I am accompanied today by Brad Fanos, the director of the fish and fish habitat protection program here in the Pacific region. After my opening remarks, we look forward to answering any questions you may have.
I would like to begin by providing a brief overview of the department’s efforts to assess and address the impacts of November’s extreme flooding on salmon and salmon habitat in British Columbia.
The flooding is likely to have impacted several riverine fish species and populations. This includes Pacific salmon eggs and juvenile salmon in rivers and streams across portions of Vancouver Island, the Squamish River watershed, the lower Fraser River watershed and the Thompson and Nicola rivers near Merritt, British Columbia. In some cases, eggs have been washed away or covered with sediment. In others, scour and erosion from high water flows have likely altered or removed salmon spawning and rearing habitats.
Currently, the department is working hard to assess and better understand the potential impacts to salmon and other species from the flood events. Following the spring freshet, which is when snow and ice melt into rivers and raise water levels and flows in early spring, the impacts will become more evident. That said, it may take several years to understand the full impact of the flooding to some specific salmon stocks given their two- to five-year life cycle.
Over the next few months, DFO will be continuing its stock assessment work while also prioritizing activities and actions to mitigate impacts and support restoration of fish and fish habitat. This will include working with the Province of British Columbia, indigenous groups, local governments, environmental NGOs, local stewardship partners and others to assess the impacts and determine what would be effective short-, medium- and long-term actions to promote recovery.
As well, DFO will continue to provide strategic support regarding salmon habitat restoration opportunities for impacted habitat related to both natural river processes and longer-term infrastructure rebuilding. The department has established an internal flood response task team that is responsible for coordinating input from subject matter experts across our program areas to support the broader inter-agency flood response and planning that's under way.
We are also re-evaluating current restoration techniques and priorities to help ensure that, going forward, salmon habitat restoration work in the future is able to withstand extreme weather and will support fish populations that may be vulnerable to climate impacts.
Going forward, DFO expects to be engaged in both local and regional flood infrastructure decisions in either a planning or project review capacity. For example, in our regulatory role, we review project proposals to assess the potential impacts to fish and fish habitat as well as provide advice to support mitigation and avoidance of impacts.
The recent flooding highlights the many challenges facing Pacific salmon and the need for DFO to take action. As committee members know, up to 50 populations of southern chinook and sockeye populations here in British Columbia are slated for COSEWIC consideration in the coming years. Many indigenous communities have been unable to meet their basic food, social and ceremonial fishery needs. Both commercial and recreational harvesters have been restricted in recent years to help protect the stocks of concern.
The $647-million Pacific salmon strategy initiative will guide and support our efforts, going forward, to conserve and rebuild salmon populations. That includes two key pillars—conservation and stewardship, and integration and collaboration that apply to the work here regarding the flood response.
Under the conservation and stewardship pillar, DFO will be focused on improving habitat monitoring and assessment, integrated planning for salmon ecosystems and strategic support for habitat restoration. On this last point, we are creating a salmon habitat restoration centre of expertise, which will complement existing programming and partnerships by providing technical experts to external groups undertaking salmon habitat restoration work.
As you know, the initiative also includes a commitment to double the federal contribution to the jointly governed and managed B.C.-DFO B.C. salmon restoration and innovation fund, which we call BCSRIF, to support the salmon stewardship and restoration work led by external partners across British Columbia, which complements the efforts of the department.
Under the integration and collaboration pillar of the PSSI, DFO will be continuing to strengthen our partnerships with the governments of British Columbia and Yukon as well as first nations. As you know, with regard to salmon habitat, there is shared jurisdiction, so it's imperative that we continue our efforts to work closely with each other. At a more local level, DFO will also be undertaking collaborative integrated planning to identify strategic actions to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change and enable better outcomes for our salmon populations.
The impacts of the recent flooding on B.C. have been devastating for many communities. As we continue to better understand the impacts of the floods on salmon and other species, we'll be continuing to work with our partners in a strategic and coordinated way. Through the PSSI and other programs, we'll be working to bring together the expertise required both inside and outside of DFO to ensure that salmon habitat restoration work will be most effective, which includes taking into account future extreme weather impacts.
I'd like to thank the committee for conducting this study and providing us the opportunity to discuss the impacts with you today.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Ms. Murdoch and Mr. Fanos, for being with us.
I'm grateful to the committee, by the way, for agreeing to do this and making it our first study as we enter this new session.
The reason I thought there was some time sensitivity to this was the fact that we were witness to damage to some of the flood control systems, particularly along the lower Fraser. This presented an opportunity to perhaps improve those systems on behalf of the salmon runs as they were being restored or rebuilt.
I don't know if Ms. Murdoch or Mr. Fanos could answer this one, but what do we know about the extent of the damage to the flood control systems along the Fraser?
My apologies. My screen just went blank, but as long as you can hear and see me, that works.
Yes, our own DFO infrastructure had some significant issues that we were not able to assess immediately because of the emergency nature, the limit of ability and access to different sites. We are in the process of making immediate repairs there, as are others.
Mr. Fanos is responsible for the program that issues some of the regulatory permits around some of the broader emergency flooding infrastructure that is being put in place immediately. We are coordinating on those, primarily through the province of British Columbia, to ensure that the appropriate permitting is in place from a regulatory perspective around protecting fish and fish habitats regarding flooding infrastructure.
If I can pass it to Mr. Fanos, he might be able to expand on that.
We know a fair bit. Our program, the fish and fish habitat protection program, has been working quite closely with a lot of the local municipalities and regional districts during the flooding events themselves to make sure that we were supporting them and the actions they were taking during the flood events to try to mitigate and avoid some impacts to fish and fish habitat while doing that important infrastructure repair work immediately at the time.
Now we're moving into the recovery phase. We know there's quite a large area in the Sumas and Chilliwack areas where are going to need dike repairs. There are many floodgates that pass water from the Fraser River into the various systems. These are critical areas for fish passage and access issues, as I'm sure you're well aware.
There's an opportunity as we're doing these upgrade works in the coming weeks, months and years, frankly, to continue to work with those various local governments in the project review functions, as Sarah indicated, and also proactively trying to ensure the best practices. Many of these features were developed 50 years ago or longer. The design features for fish friendly aspects weren't necessarily available. There's a tremendous opportunity, and we will be working with local governments and the British Columbia government for all those opportunities as we're starting to rebuild for the fish friendly....
I should note that there's been a tremendous amount of the work by ENGOs, people like the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, for example, who have done an excellent job working with others to prioritize and understand the number of flooding infrastructure issues and where there are opportunities and priorities related to improvements for fish and fish habitat.
Mr. Chair, I can begin and then I'll quickly pass it to my colleague, Mr. Fanos.
I would say that it's very much aligned with DFO's role in the process and very much what we are looking to support. Where Mr. Fanos leads, we have a regulatory role around protection of fish and fish habitat, but we also are looking to engage increasingly in the local and regional levels of ecosystem and integrated planning processes to support what we call a “fish friendly” approach to infrastructure.
Obviously, a lot of the leadership needs to also come from the Government of British Columbia and local governments, so it's very nice to hear that it's supported by your local regional district or community of Nanaimo.
We've had good initial conversations with the British Columbia government and we are hoping to continue to have broader support along those lines.
Mr. Fanos, do you want to add?
Thanks very much for the question.
Mr. Chair, I just have a brief response. I wholeheartedly agree. We do need an integrated approach. One thing we are looking to do within the department under PSSI is now to have a pacific salmon secretariat that makes sure we aren't siloing even within our own departmental response.
As mentioned, we also have a task team for flood response that brings in the subject matter experts from across our various program areas. Obviously, though, that's just within DFO. In our department, we are also engaged and looking to engage further—over the medium to long term, not just the immediate response—in an inter-agency approach. We expect that will be led by the B.C. government, but there will also be tables and opportunities to engage at that subregional or watershed level as well going forward.
I wholeheartedly agree that we need a coordinated approach that's more holistic in nature.
As Mr. Fanos mentioned, if we can do things in a way that is fish friendly or friendly for salmon, it will tend to have broader positive environmental effects as well.
I'd like to thank the clerk and the whole team for their understanding.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here.
My birthday gift came quickly. How wonderful.
I have a question about recommendation 14 in the committee's fifth report. The recommendation reads as follows:
That the Government of Canada recognize that the situation in British Columbia facing fish harvesters is urgent, and that relief will be necessary to support commercial, recreational, and Indigenous harvesters as these communities rebuild the fisheries.
The recommendation addresses the emergency supports that commercial, recreational and indigenous fish harvesters need.
Do you have an assessment plan in place?
Are the supports targeted?
Have you been able to provide specific and effective support in a targeted manner?
Thank you to our witnesses for appearing.
Ms. Murdoch, I want to talk about dredging. Although the flood devastation in the Fraser Valley was immense, it could have been so many times worse had the Fraser dikes been breached by this atmospheric event.
Your presentation addressed the steps that will be taken to restore and protect fish habitat, effectively after the fact. The focus of the study is actually “risks flood control/mitigation systems...pose to wild salmon runs”. The Fraser River dikes run all the way from Hope down to Richmond, and if they were breached, the devastation would be many orders of magnitude greater. It behooves us as decision-makers to turn our minds to how we harden our infrastructure—in other words, to our diking and drainage systems.
One of the problems in the Fraser River—and if you speak to the mayor of Abbotsford he'll confirm this—is that the current of the Fraser River is being redirected. Sandbars are building up, redirecting the currents up against the dikes themselves, undermining them. I believe the term that's used is “avulsion”. In any event, the integrity of those dikes, which are many decades old, is being eroded. I believe that DFO and levels of government across Canada are going to have to put their minds to how to protect our communities against these events that will become more frequent.
To get to the dredging issue, obviously DFO is deeply implicated in the dredging of rivers.
Have you turned your mind to the possibility of increasing the dredging to ensure that the flow of the river doesn't further undermine the integrity of the dikes?
Yes, I thought it was a good opportunity to maybe explain some more.
First, with regard to role the department has in dredging—and then I'll move into some of the impacts that could be associated with dredging—we're not the lead for water management, for flood management and for drainage. This is a provincial jurisdiction. We really work in collaboration with others. Our role is approval of the dredging as we're looking at the impacts on fish and fish habitat from a regulatory perspective. We support the thinking and the work that's going into what are the best prescriptions to manage flood and drainage in the Lower Mainland. Again, it's a secondary role to provide advice one how that might impact fish and fish habitat, so again it's provincial jurisdiction and local government's.
With regard to the impacts on fish and fish habitat, absolutely, when we look at these projects and these mitigations, if it's dredging, we look at the various impacts we could be seeing, whether it's on juvenile or adult species and habitats in those locations. There could be spawning habitats or rearing habitats for important species that could be impacted. There are times of the year that are particularly sensitive when fish at different life stages are in the water. There are significant potential impacts on fish and fish habitat associated with dredging. It's in-water work, so it's disturbing their habitats. It may be disturbing individuals. It could harm or even kill individuals depending on the time of year the dredging is done.
It's a serious piece of work; it's important. We have a lot of expertise. Over the years we've worked with various local governments to ensure that dredging is going on, because it's required and critical for a variety of reasons, not only for flood management but also for navigation. Absolutely, we're actively engaged to conserve and protect the fish and fish habitat values that are in those systems.
We certainly have a keen interest, as you know, in the salmon, but there are other species, freshwater species, such as sturgeon, and there are several listed species in Sumas, for example, with Nooksack dace and Salish suckers. So there are other species that are potentially impacted by the flooding events.
As we said earlier, many of the impacts of the flooding will be hard to determine at this particular juncture. We're going to have to do assessments over time to look at the channel morphologies and at the stock assessments from a fish perspective to understand what stocks might have been impacted. Absolutely, there is quite a diverse array of potential impacts.
I should note that these are natural events that often impact habitat features, for example, scalping gravel away that fish might want to spawn in, but they also generate new off-channel habitats and spawning habitats, so there is a positive and a potential negative feature to these kinds of hydrologic events that you're seeing.
With regard to mitigation, yes, the Fraser, as you've kind of alluded, is a critical migration corridor for many upriver salmon species, not just Pacific salmon, but also resident species, so there are potential impacts on those. By the nature of the Fraser River itself, I don't think that corridor looked to be having any impacts with respect to those migratory patterns, if you will. It was more those adjacent systems that drain into the Fraser that were really impacted by that, the heavy rainfalls and the increases in hydrologic flows in those particular systems.
I'd like to follow up on what I was talking about earlier, but in relation to the St. Lawrence River and what might apply there.
I bring it up because these types of problems could also occur in the St. Lawrence River. As we know, climate change is a complex phenomenon with many surprises in store. The river could be affected by events that could threaten certain species.
In Quebec, we have experts who study the St. Lawrence River.
Would it be possible for us to have some latitude in terms of managing the river's resources? At the very least, would it be possible to have a consultation committee made up of Fisheries and Oceans Canada representatives and scientists who specialize in the St. Lawrence River, the idea being to help advance the thinking and planning around this issue?
I would say that in our funding programs that DFO administers, we are looking forward to things that further support and protect fish and fish habitat, and to do this in ways that are forward-thinking in terms of climate adaptation going forward. Regarding the additional costs, as long as it's a solid project and meets the program criteria, I think the type of work you're talking about, which has positive outlooks for salmon, would be well received.
You may be referring to some of the broader funding that's being managed by the provincial government by way of broader response. I don't know if Mr. Fanos has anything to suggest there, other than the fact that this work still requires regulatory permits and necessary requirements to show that it is not harming fish or fish habitat. That would be a key part of our process, as well as participating in the planning.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I thank the witnesses for coming today.
Obviously, in the Fraser Valley, we experienced a major flooding event. That's why Mr. Fast and I are here. What I saw was private citizens rushing in to the breach, if you can put it that way, to not only help with search and rescue and animal rescue, etc.; shortly afterwards, the Fraser Valley Angling Guides Association, professional guides, used their own boats and own fuel and expertise to rescue not only stranded salmon, but stranded sturgeon, as well, which is an endangered species.
Have you reached out to those groups that incurred significant costs and used a significant amount of time, to compensate them for their efforts to save precious salmon and sturgeon resources that were impacted so drastically by that flood event?
Yes, you're asking what our role is right now with the existing challenges you described.
There are two different angles that we're working on right now in the department. One, as systems are coming up for works and maintenance repairs, provincial authorities are planning on getting permits provincially for that. We typically try to provide advice in those processes to determine whether or not there's permitting from DFO, and that's the time when we engage, look for the avoidance mitigation and whether we need to offset measures here so that we're getting better inputs, or better conditions for fish. That's one way.
The existing facilities that aren't going under any reviews right now cause serious concerns and problems. We have been taking some lead from the various ENGO groups that have done a lot of work in this area, particularly Watershed Watch, and trying to understand some of the opportunities that they see in collaboration with indigenous groups and local governments to work with existing facilities that have been in place for some time.
We all know that the costs associated with many of these upgrades are substantial, not just in the floodgate access issues that would be of particular concern for DFO, but also the general maintenance of these dikes and facilities—
As you highlighted, the focus today has been on British Columbia, but the Pacific salmon strategy initiative does apply to Yukon Territory as well.
We've had initial meetings with the Yukon government at the deputy level and below, just socializing this new direction for the department and really trying to focus on, as you say, understanding the climate effects on salmon and salmon habitat and looking at opportunities for rebuilding and recovery.
Because of the post-treaty context up there, a key important first step that we have begun is to meet directly with first nations in Yukon to talk about where we have shared priorities and how we can move forward on that. That conversation is expected to continue over the next few months.
We also have a unique process there that reports directly to our , called the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee, which was created under the umbrella Yukon agreement. We are looking to work with them and get advice from them also on how best to implement the PSSI, as we call it, up in Yukon.
Those three groups are key, I think, to identifying the shared priorities for how PSSI can be implemented up in the Yukon context.
I'm not familiar with or don't have handy right now exactly what recommendation 6 is. I'll be brief, and maybe you can clarify whether I hit the mark.
One of the key aspects of the Pacific salmon strategy initiative moving forward is the recognition that the federal government, and DFO in particular, will not be able to stem the declines we're seeing in Pacific salmon alone. We have over 200 first nations across B.C. and Yukon, many of whom are very passionate and have a huge historical tie with the social and economic importance of salmon.
We also have, I think, approximately 30,000 stewardship volunteers who spend their own volunteer time and hours working on salmon-related projects. We need to harness that. Also, Mr. Fanos and I spoke to the fact that addressing salmon habitat in particular requires a multi-jurisdictional approach with the Province of British Columbia. So...building in the capacity, and we are creating a salmon stewardship directorate specifically so that we have the right people in place to leverage those relationships. Making sure that our partners have access to whatever DFO capacity and resources they need to move forward in their own priorities and work to protect and rebuild salmon stocks is a key component of our work going forward.
That does represent a bit of a shift in that there's a leadership role, but the government is going to be doing this working with others.
I'd like to ask Ms. Murdoch about the Pacific salmon strategy initiative.
When minister Jordan announced the PSSI, she repeatedly stated it would be “built from the ground up”. That was her quote.
Today we've heard from you that the PSSI is the government's primary response conduit for fish affected by the floods. Obviously the PSSI is up and running, so what is the current status of the PSSI? Can you give us a ballpark figure of the PSSI, whether it's 10%, 20%, 50% established?
Could you provide some information?
As you know, minister Jordan made that first announcement in June right before the salmon commercial fishing season. We spent much of the summer and then post-election period, the later fall and early winter, engaging at a broad level on the salmon strategy initiative.
We've now launched into what we call our early implementation identifying some key priorities and action areas of work under each of the four pillars and consulting quite broadly with first nations and the provincial government, the Yukon government and other parties on moving forward both in the short term on some immediate action area.
As I said, we didn't envision what would happen in the fall in terms of the floods. We do think PSSI is well positioned to lead our flood response going forward.
Yes, I can take the question. Thank you.
In terms of what's happening right now, the first item that we're doing is working internally with the different expertise within the department. We have science. We have the habitat program that is helping people restore some of the infrastructure to roads and dikes. We have that expertise. We have contribution program expertise to make sure we're connecting with various opportunities for funding different activities. We have restoration expertise within the department, as Sarah alluded to.
We're bringing those people together in a team to make sure that we can understand what assessments are required to understand the impacts. As we said, it's going to take months and years for us to assess given the life history of salmon. We're trying to position ourselves to use existing assessments to understand that. We're trying to set priorities based on stock status and habitat conditions to prioritize our actions to work with others.
We're really preparing ourselves as a department to have a coordinated response to support the provincial agencies, the environmental agencies and others that are positioned. We're actually doing work with the Pacific Salmon Foundation on some assessments of imagery around some of the impacted systems. We'll continue to work with first nations and others to understand their interests and try to support those activities in a timely manner.