Ditidaht First Nation and Parks Canada - Restoration of Cheewaht Lake salmon stream


Cheewaht Lake Watershed:

The Cheewaht Lake watershed on the southern West Coast of Vancouver Island lies within the traditional territory of Ditidaht First Nation and is a place of cultural significance. For millennia, this watershed provided the remote Ditidaht community with one of its most valued food sources: sockeye salmon.

In 1973, as First Nations and environmental groups raised concerns about industrial logging on Vancouver Island, the Government of Canada moved to add Cheewaht Lake and much of the Nitinaht Triangle to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve as part of the West Coast Trail Unit. All known Cheewaht Lake spawning areas gained protection under the Canada National Park Act.

Between 1984 and 1992, parts of the northeast and east side of Cheewaht Lake were logged up to the boundary of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. While some streams were clogged, others experienced higher flows which, in some cases, caused flooding of forested areas and killing of old growth trees.  

Fish abundance studies in the Cheewaht watershed began in 1985. From 1989 onwards, these studies tracked the steady decline of salmon runs and habitat. The Ditidaht community began to limit harvesting of Cheewaht salmon to protect the future of these runs.

Many heritage places administered by Parks Canada have seen a transition over time from a past where Indigenous peoples were separated from their ancestral lands and waters, to the current context where the Agency strives to work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples. When Pacific Rim National Park Reserve was established, First Nations were not adequately engaged. Ditidaht First Nation were restricted from accessing much of their traditional lands and waters, and their Indigenous knowledge was not recognized in land management decisions. Today, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is collaboratively managed with local First Nations. Parks Canada is working alongside Ditidaht First Nation in the recovery of the Cheewaht salmon streams.


Restoration planning:
Restoration of the Cheewaht Lake watershed requires collaborative management both inside and outside of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. To pursue this important goal, private, public and Indigenous groups voluntarily came together to establish the Cheewaht Restoration Working Group in 2008 and – after a hiatus – again in 2017. The working group continues to meet today with participants, including:


  • Ditidaht First Nation
  • Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council/Uu-a-thluk
  • Parks Canada
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Nitinaht Hatchery
  • Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (South Island)
  • British Columbia Timber Sales
  • Western Forest Products
  • Tel-Jones Group
  • MC Wright and Associates (Biological consultant)
  • West Coast Aquatic (Environmental non-governmental organization)

Working group discussions and restoration initiatives are informed by extensive and updated studies on the Cheewaht watershed. These include detailed habitat mapping and spawning surveys, as well as geotechnical and hydrological assessments.

In 2009, as a result of working group discussions, sediment catchment basins were constructed outside of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s boundary to reduce the transport of sediment to the downstream fish habitat. These are maintained by forestry stakeholders as a part of the working group’s initiatives. A restriction on commercial fishing was also developed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada at the mouth of the Cheewaht River to protect salmon stocks.

In 2018, Parks Canada committed to working with Ditidaht First Nation to take the next important step in the Cheewaht Lake watershed restoration effort: restoring 1 km of important sockeye and coho habitat in three separate streams.

All members of the working group have played a role in the project, whether by providing data, expertise, Indigenous traditional knowledge or in-kind support. The total project cost is $1.1 million, funded through Parks Canada’s Conservation and Restoration program.


Project Implementation:

Conducting restoration work in a national park reserve requires careful planning to minimize environmental and cultural impacts. This is especially true in the Cheewaht Lake area, which is home to many old growth trees including the largest in Canada – a Western Red Cedar known as the “Cheewaht Giant”. 

Prior to the initiation of the restoration work, all fish in the restoration zones were released into Cheewaht Lake. Barrier nets were set up to stop fish from migrating back into construction zones until restoration was complete.

Cheewaht Lake does not have road access, so a temporary “corduroy” road made of small logs was created. The contractor responsible for leading the restoration work, Roc-Star Enterprises, transported small machinery along the corduroy road to the edge of Cheewaht Lake where the equipment was then transported by barge to the restoration sites.

MC Wright and Associates, who have worked with Ditidaht First Nation on the Cheewaht Lake watershed for the past 35 years, designed the restoration approach. The approach involved re-establishing the stream channels to follow their historic routes, using natural materials found on site to stabilize the stream banks, and lowering the streambed elevation to pre-logging conditions. More than 3,000 cubic metres of sediment was removed from the streams. Additionally, disturbed areas beyond the top of the stream banks were revegetated with native plant species to stabilize these areas during storm events. Two members of Ditidaht First Nation were part of the team working on the ground to bring the sockeye streams closer to their original state.

In October 2020, adult sockeye and coho began returning to the watershed, spawning in all three of the restored streams, as well as an additional 100 metres of habitat that had not been accessible for over two decades. Parks Canada and Ditidaht First Nation will continue to monitor sockeye and coho salmon numbers in the watershed.


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