Joy riders 'threaten' salmon, call goes out to ban jet boats on upper Pitt River

Concerns have been raised about the potential for damage to sensitive salmon habitat north of Coquitlam, but DFO enforcement manager says he has to catch jetboaters in the act

A Coquitlam school teacher is adding her voice to environmentalists, First Nations and a wilderness lodge keeper who are calling for restrictions to jet boats on the upper Pitt River. 

Janet Klopp, an avid outdoors woman, has yet to visit the isolated tributary of Pitt Lake, which requires a 40 minute boat trip across sometimes choppy waters north of the popular Widgeon Creek campsite in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park.

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But she worries that thrill-seeking jet boat riders speeding up the glacier-fed river with its intricate weaving of tributaries and gravel bars could destroy the sensitive ecosystem where five species of salmon are known to spawn.

Another view of the shallow areas of the upper Pitt River,
A view of the shallow areas of the upper Pitt River, and a lone jet boat in the water. - Submitted

Jet boats are propelled forward when water is sucked into the craft and pumped out the back, enabling them to operate in much shallower water than propeller boats.

This allows them to get close to spawning grounds, potentially disturbing spawning nests, where salmon eggs are buried, and juvenile smolts, which spend their time in fresh water before heading out to sea.

“It’s prime salmon habitat,” said Klopp, who works as a teacher on call for School District 43.

CONCERNS RAISED

She’s added her voice to concerns raised by Dan Gerak, who owns the Pitt River Lodge and guides recreational fishermen on the upper Pitt River. Both have tried to get politicians, media, Department of Fisheries and Transport Canada to take note of what they see is a growing problem of jet boaters speeding in shallow waters.

Gerak told the Tri-City News he’s getting increasingly frustrated with jet boaters who he says get too close to the gravel areas where the eggs are laid, and the pressure from the jet engine “kills off the eggs,” They could be responsible for killing juvenile smolts by their wash.

Their concerns have been brought to the attention of Art Demsky, detachment commander of the DFO Conservation and Protection Branch in Langley.

Demsky, whose officers make patrols via helicopter and boat, looking for people who don’t release the fish they catch, said he is aware of the issue.

Department of Fisheries officers patrol the upper Pitt River,
Department of Fisheries officers patrol the upper Pitt River, looking for people who may be catching fish illegally. - Submitted

Most of the jet boating activity is along a 10-km stretch from the mouth of the upper Pitt. Further along, toward Garibaldi Provincial Park, where glaciers feed the river, it becomes dangerous. 

PATROLS

“The accessible part is only 32 km by water because there is a set of impassable canyons and chutes, like a waterfall in a canyon. People have tried to go up in their boat and died.”

Demsky said he takes complaints seriously but can’t attend every call because of limited resources, and a recent focus on shellfish harvesting because people can die from eating clams dug from Metro Vancouver beaches. 

When officers do patrol, usually with RCMP taking the lead, the focus is on illegal fishing.

However, Demsky said he’s well aware of the few miscreants who are making trouble. But it’s difficult to find evidence of habitat destruction in their wake, which would be the only way to prosecute.

“We do look at harmful alterations, destruction of fish habitat. In order for us to do anything about it there has to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

Still, DFO officers know who many of the troublemakers are, as do police, he warns.

“We try to educate people first. We could go up there with RCMP and raise hell if we could catch people, but you’ve got to catch them in the act,” he said.

The beauty of the upper Pitt River shines brightly on a clear day.
The beauty of the upper Pitt River shines brightly on a clear day. - Submitted

NO RESTRICTIONS

Currently, there are no rules preventing jet boats from accessing the upper Pitt, but speed limit and horsepower restrictions would limit the number of powerful jet boats in the area. Demsky said it would be up to Transport Canada to make those rules.

Klopp, meanwhile, would like to see them banned altogether and has raised the issue with politicians at all levels, including Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam MP Ron McKinnon.

With Pacific salmon runs dwindling, both Klopp and Gerak wonder why the federal and provincial governments aren’t acting faster to protect salmon in the upper Pitt River.

Gerak, who said bookings are down at his fishing lodge this year because of COVID-19 and foreign travel restrictions, added he’s raised the issue for a number of years and in that time has seen more jet boaters not fewer.

Dan Gerak, fishing guide and owner of the Pitt River Lodge
Dan Gerak, fishing guide and owner of the Pitt River Lodge, has raised concerns about jet boat impact on the upper Pitt River several times over the years. - Submitted

“They (authorities) just ignore everything now,” said Gerak.

His concerns about the impact of jet boats on salmon habitat are backed by studies in the U.S. and New Zealand, according to an independent journalist and environmental writer.

Mark Hume has written a brief supporting Gerak’s concerns, and would like to see all powerboats off the upper Pitt River during spawning and rearing season, as well as signage reminding people that the area is sensitive habitat for fish.

“Allowing jet boats to race through these waters when salmon are spawning, or eggs and alevins are in the gravel, or when small fry are along the river margins, is irresponsible and is in direct conflict with the catch and release regulations which are designed to protect salmon,” Hume said in his brief.

Dead smolts along side the upper Pitt River.
Dead smolts along side the upper Pitt River. Dan Gerak speculates that they were killed in the wash of a jet boat. - Dan Gerak
The Pitt River Lodge is in an isolated spot in Alvin in the upper Pitt River.
The Pitt River Lodge is in an isolated spot in Alvin in the upper Pitt River. - Submitted

PATROLS CONTINUE

For Demsky, there are other concerns as well. Thrill-seeking jet boaters might be putting their lives at risk because their craft can easily flip. There are other potential dangers, such as underwater logs and rapidly changing tides, that could leave jet boaters stranded, along with narrow channels that need to be negotiated carefully.

Isolated, but easily accessible from boat launches in Pitt Meadows and even Coquitlam — if extra gas is brought along — the upper Pitt is a pristine area, rich with salmon, elk and bears.

But other than patrols and trying to maintain DFO fishing regulations, Demsky fears his hands are tied.

Department of Fisheries officers patrol the upper Pitt River
Shallow areas of the river are ideal salmon habitat, as seen from a patrol of the upper Pitt River. - Submitted

“Joy riders, you can go the internet and find them, it’s disturbing to see, and I admit that I would like to see them out of there.”

Meanwhile, Klopp and Gerak hope media exposure and a letter writing campaign will force politicians to take action.

“If you don’t look after the nurseries where the salmon develop, they aren’t going to make it to the ocean,” said Klopp.

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