Since Time Immemorial
The people of the Squamish Nation, Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Úxwumixw, are the descendants of the Coast Salish who have lived in Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound since time immemorial. The oldest archeological discoveries at Porteau Cove only 15 kilometres from the Squamish Estuary date back more than 8,600 years.
The Squamish people have always understood that the estuary, and the watershed that nourishes it, is the life source that nurtures so much of what was and is the basis of their culture — food, clothing, medicine and transportation — and it is fundamental to their customs, traditions and indeed their existence as a people.
Central to this identity is the legendary salmon, that resilient, determined fish that finds shelter and nourishment as a tiny salmonid in the safety of the estuary and returns remarkably as an adult to sustain them through tough winters. To the Squamish, salmon are the gift that breathes life into future generations.
For millennia, the estuary was a vast, sustainable resource of food and wisdom to the Squamish people, and their village sites peppered the area well into the time when European descendants began to settle the valley. (see map to left)
In 1970, when the berm was initially constructed to "train" the Squamish river to the west side of the valley to facilitate port development, in particular a coal export facility that was never built due to community outrage and environmental concerns, it callously plowed right through several historic village sites including Skwelwil'em for which the provincial Widllife Management Area of today is named. And it was done so with complete disregard to the Squamish Nation people, to their culture and way of life, and to their territory which remains unceded to this day. For 50 years the Squamish Nation has been fighting to reconnect the Squamish River with its estuary so that this ecosystem can become resilient and sustaining once again.
The Central Estuary Restoration Project, a partnership between the Squamish Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Squamish River Watershed Society, is the latest initiative to not only reconnect a watershed to its estuary to revive this vital ecosystem for future generations, but to also help rectify a woefully misguided past.
When the Squamish River training berm and the rail spur lines were built on the western and eastern flanks of the estuary respectively, it significantly restricted and limited water flow, habitat function and fish passage in the central estuary,
Chinook salmon returns in the watershed plummeted in the years following the construction of the training berm from well over 20,000 to under 3,000, a dwindling number that continues to this day.
The berm also prevented the glacial-fed waters of the Squamish River system from entering the central estuary, blocking the nutrient-rich sediments and temperature-regulating cold waters from effectively entering the central estuary.
One of the insights that came out of the failure of the coal port proposal in 1971 was the recommendation to create a comprehensive and collaborative management plan for the estuary.
The Squamish Estuary Management Planning (SEMP) initiated in the late 1970s was finally signed in 1999 by the Federal, Provincial and Local governments to begin to designate conservation, industrial / commercial and transportation land use areas.
Since 1999, and guided through SEMP, the SRWS in partnership with Squamish Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Province of BC and others, led restoration projects in the estuary. As of 2015, this collective has supported and completed many restoration measures identified in the SEMP including:
Restoring 15ha of salt marsh, tidal channels and upland habitat
Installing four of the nine existing culverts and trash racks across the training berm
Constructing over 25,000 m2 of tidal channel habitat and restoration planting
Constructing pedestrian bridges throughout the estuary trail network
Restoration of eelgrass beds (Zostera marina)
Collectively, these projects are beginning to demonstrate that it is not too late for the Squamish River estuary to transform from an area significantly compromised by misguided industrial ambition to the thriving ecosystem it once was.
In 2018, the Central Estuary Restoration Project received multi governmental support and funding to continue this important restoration work.