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Oil Spill Possibly Killing Salmon

Coho and chinook salmon are milling about in Saanich Inlet, but few have entered the Goldstream River and concerns are growing that residual effects from an April fuel spill could be keeping them away.

“We have seen virtually nothing in the river, but there’s anecdotal information that there are fish in the inlet,” said Peter McCully, manager of Goldstream Hatchery.

This spring, a Columbia Fuels tanker crashed on the Malahat, B.C., spilling 42,000 litres of gasoline and 650 litres of diesel, some of which seeped into the river, killing salmon and trout.

Coho and chinook are normally spawning in the river by the end of September, but, so far, only eight coho have been spotted, McCully said.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 coho are expected to return.

“What is holding them out there? Could they be repelled by the smell of fuel?” said McCully, who questions why the nearby Sooke River has good early returns of coho and chinook.

However, there could be other elements affecting fish behaviour, such as the number of seals in the upper inlet, he said.

“We just don’t know and Mother Nature has a wonderful way of confounding us,” McCully said.

“We are searching for any possible explanation of why we are not seeing the pattern we have seen in the past. We are certainly concerned, but all is not lost yet.”

The main Goldstream run of chum salmon does not usually enter the river until the third week of October.

At Goldstream Nature House, where an art exhibition showing the resilience of nature runs until Monday, manager Tracey Bleackley is hoping the fish will appear when water levels rise.

“We just don’t know. The fish rely heavily on their senses to find their way back to the river they were born in. Are they going to smell the river?” she said.

Beavers, which were active before the spill, have not been seen since, but it is not known whether the spill has anything to do with their disappearance, Bleackley said.

The popular river no longer has an obvious smell of fuel and the telltale sheen has disappeared in most areas.

But three trouble spots remain on the highway and a soil vapour extraction system will be installed next week by contractors hired by Columbia Fuels, said Graham Knox, provincial manager of environmental emergencies.

The unit puts soil in a vacuum, turning hydrocarbons to gas, which are collected in carbon filters.

Apart from the crash site, the two other trouble spots are where the fuel ran through old water courses and became stranded.

Ongoing surveys have not turned up any problems with species diversity, Knox said.

“All numbers look as if they are in the normal range,” he said.

A survey in August showed about 900 square metres of water was still showing a sheen, so fisheries crews from Saanich First Nations raked the gravel, Knox said.

“That was very successful and I don’t think any more work needs to be done on it,” he said.

Andrea Voysey, director of marketing for Columbia Fuels, which is responsible for the cleanup, said monitoring will continue for years, even though the Goldstream water is now clean enough to drink and the ecosystem is recovering.

“It looks good,” she said. “We want to make sure it is put back the way it should be.”

Columbia Fuels will not disclose the cost of the cleanup.

However, Knox said the figures are likely to eventually made public.

“It’s not something that will be kept secret,” he said.

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