A Fishy So­lu­tion

Could dead salmon help re­store our rivers? FRANCES BACKHOUSE FROM HAKAI MAG­A­ZINE

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents -

ON A CHILLY JAN­UARY MORN­ING IN 2017, fouryear-old Eli Burger stands on the bank of Dou­glas Creek, on the out­skirts of Vic­to­ria, B.C., hug­ging a dead salmon against his red parka. He looks up at his fa­ther, Andrew, who nods en­cour­ag­ingly. “Go ahead,” he says. “Chuck it in.” The young boy shuf­fles for­ward and heaves the fish as far as he can into the shal­low water. It lands with a splash and drifts be­fore fi­nally set­tling against a boul­der. “It’s float­ing!” Eli ex­claims, de­lighted. For a mo­ment, it’s al­most as if the hand­some coho could wrig­gle back to life.

Eli’s salmon is just one of 100 or so chum and coho car­casses that will land in Dou­glas Creek in a halfhour frenzy of ac­tiv­ity this morn­ing, de­posited by dozens of vol­un­teers. None of the salmon will mirac­u­lously rise from the dead, but Dar­rell Wick, who has con­vened this gath­er­ing, is in the res­ur­rec­tion busi­ness.

Co-founder and pres­i­dent of the Friends of Mount Dou­glas Park So­ci­ety, Wick also leads the group’s cam­paign to re-es­tab­lish this ur­ban wa­ter­way’s salmon pop­u­la­tion. The Friends of Mount Dou­glas started in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of restor­ing the salmon run in their lit­tle stub of a creek in the mid-1990s, part of a zeit­geist fo­cused on river restora­tion in cities world­wide. Back then, the prospects looked bleak.

Time has been un­kind to Dou­glas Creek, which flows down Mount Dou­glas—also known as PKOLS in the SENC´OT-EN lan­guage—and

emp­ties into the Sal­ish Sea off south­ern Vancouver Is­land. Over the past eight gen­er­a­tions, much of the creek’s 5.6-square-kilo­me­tre wa­ter­shed has been trans­formed from for­est to farm­land to subur­bia. The up­per reaches run through un­der­ground cul­verts; only the fi­nal 1.1-kilo­me­tre stretch, which lies within Mount Dou­glas Park, sees day­light. Pol­lu­tion from roads, lawns and res­i­den­tial oil tank spills is now largely cur­tailed, thanks to mu­nic­i­pal reg­u­la­tions and the con­struc­tion of a weir and set­tling pond at the head of the creek. But storm surges fed by runoff from paved sur­faces and roofs still threaten the creek’s in­tegrity, erod­ing its banks and scour­ing the chan­nel.

Bi­ol­o­gist Peter McCully helped as­sess the wa­ter­way’s po­ten­tial in the early ’90s. “The only thing we found was a scud,” he says, a hardy lit­tle crus­tacean. “We didn’t turn up any fin fish, any am­phib­ians, noth­ing.”

The cer­e­mo­nial cast­ing of de­ceased and po­ten­tially pu­trid fish into the creek is only one part of the process of creek re­ju­ve­na­tion. But lur­ing life with death has deep roots in over­lap­ping ecosys­tem man­age­ment prac­tices. For mil­len­nia, up and down the west coast, In­dige­nous peo­ples rit­u­ally hon­oured each year’s first-caught salmon by re­turn­ing its care­fully cleaned bones to the river. And sci­en­tists to­day rec­og­nize that a vi­brant salmon creek needs an an­nual in­flux of dead fish for over­all ecosys­tem sus­te­nance and, more specif­i­cally, to pro­vide a hearty meal for aquatic in­ver­te­brates, which in turn nour­ish ju­ve­nile salmon. Dis­tribut­ing salmon car­casses is now part of stream restora­tion pro­grams in var­i­ous west coast com­mu­ni­ties.

BE­FORE THE CAR­CASS toss, Wick and I meet at an un­marked en­trance to the park, off a cul-de-sac just up the street from his home. A short walk takes us into the shade of tow­er­ing Dou­glas firs and cedars and down a fern-lined path to the creek. “Yes­ter­day,” Wick tells me, “I met a man who re­mem­bered be­ing here in the early ’60s, when this creek was full of salmon and cut­throat trout.” Those days were gone by the time Wick moved to the neigh­bour­hood in 1973, but this vi­sion of the re­cent past—and a pos­si­ble fu­ture—hooked him and hasn’t let go.

In­spired by sto­ries of the wa­ter­way’s past glory, he and his group are in­tent on giv­ing the creek a full makeover. This mon­u­men­tal re­pair job, sup­ported by ap­prox­i­mately $95,000 of fund­ing from the Pa­cific Salmon Foun­da­tion over the past 15 years, has in­volved strate­gi­cally dis­tribut­ing truck­loads of gravel to cre­ate spawn­ing habi­tat and ca­bling mas­sive boul­ders, tree trunks and root balls along the banks to hin­der ero­sion. Work on the creek’s fi­nal sec­tion, a me­an­der­ing 136 me­tres just down­stream of the weir, was com­pleted in July 2017.

As early as 1997, the group was busy seed­ing the creek with salmon, re­leas­ing fry raised in lo­cal schools and at the nearby Howard English Hatch­ery. Five years later, they be­gan the fish toss, with the hatch­ery pro­vid­ing the car­casses. It’s since be­come an an­nual tra­di­tion, though they missed 2007, when no dead fish were avail­able, due to a low re­turn to the Gold­stream River.


“WHY ON EARTH would we put dead fish into a creek in or­der to try to get live fish back?” McCully’s ques­tion sends a rip­ple of laugh­ter through the crowd gath­ered at the park en­trance. Cof­fee and dough­nuts, the daz­zle of sun on the frosty grass, and the warmth of Wick’s open­ing re­marks have put ev­ery­one in a re­laxed and cheer­ful mood. An equal mix of adults and kids, the group in­cludes Friends of Mount Dou­glas mem­bers, hatch­ery vol­un­teers, mu­nic­i­pal politicians and em­ploy­ees and cu­ri­ous neigh­bours. The vet­eran salmon tossers have heard McCully’s homily be­fore, but they lis­ten to the bearded bi­ol­o­gist— the hatch­ery’s tech­ni­cal ad­viser— as at­ten­tively as the novices.

Pa­cific salmon, McCully says, be­gin and end their lives in fresh­wa­ter streams but in be­tween spend one to seven years in the open ocean. There, gorg­ing on a ban­quet of small fish, krill and other del­i­ca­cies, they store up phos­pho­rus, ni­tro­gen and car­bon— vi­tal el­e­ments that are lim­ited in the west coast’s ri­par­ian ecosys­tems, be­cause heavy rains con­stantly wash them away.

When the salmon re­turn to their natal wa­ter­ways to re­pro­duce, they bring the riches of the ocean with them. “They spawn, they die, and their car­casses de­grade very quickly,” McCully con­cludes, not­ing that within a few months, “you’d be hard pressed to find any­thing save maybe a jaw­bone, a few teeth, and the hard gill plate.” As scav­engers and de­com­posers re­duce the salmon to bony scraps, the nu­tri­ents car­ried in their bod­ies fan out through the food chain. “The lux­u­ri­ant trees on the west coast ben­e­fit from those nu­tri­ents. The next gen­er­a­tion of ju­ve­nile fish ben­e­fit from those nu­tri­ents. It’s a tremen­dous re­cy­cling pro­gram—bet­ter than any­thing we could ever de­vise.”

The ecol­ogy les­son over, it’s time for ac­tion. Af­ter a few fi­nal in­struc­tions, Wick claps his hands. “Let’s go!”

The par­tic­i­pants leap into ac­tion, heft­ing bags of dead salmon from a pickup truck into wheel­bar­rows, push­ing heavy loads down the wood chip trail and then lug­ging the cargo down nar­row foot­paths to the two dis­tri­bu­tion sites. Down at the creek, they rip open the plas­tic and pass the con­tents to those who are ea­ger to de­liver the bounty. Eleven-year-old In­grid Ric­cius later tells me she got to launch three or four car­casses—ex­cel­lent re­search for the speech on the salmon life cy­cle she’s work­ing on for her Grade 6 class. “It was cool,” she de­clares.

With the un­sea­son­ably cold weather, the car­casses have not thawed since they were taken out of the hatch­ery’s freezer al­most a week ago. They emerge from the bags stiff as boards and glazed with ice, but as the water warms them, it bur­nishes their skin, high­light­ing their red and green mark­ings. A faint fishy odour

starts to rise from the creek. Para­dox­i­cally, the sight and smell of th­ese dead fish makes the place seem more alive.

DOU­GLAS CREEK IS still far from be­ing a self-sus­tain­ing salmon run, with enough fish re­turn­ing and dy­ing each year to fer­til­ize the creek nat­u­rally. By McCully’s reck­on­ing, chil­dren like Eli and In­grid will be adults be­fore the dam­age wrought by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions is un­done. But the progress so far is grat­i­fy­ing. In 2003, for the first time in decades, an adult salmon re­turned to the creek. This male coho “was lonely as hell,” says McCully, “but the fact that he came back at all was re­ally en­cour­ag­ing.” Each fall since then, coho and chum have mi­grated up the creek to spawn, with some achiev­ing their ul­ti­mate goal, the proof com­ing in spring­time when fry emerge from the gravel.

The sat­is­fied smiles as vol­un­teers walk back to the park­ing lot sug­gest that the rit­ual is as im­por­tant as the dead fish them­selves. The car­cass toss is a re­minder that salmon are vi­tal com­mu­nity mem­bers too, as pre­cious in death as they are in life.

Dar­rell Wick dreams of help­ing the creek be­come a salmon-friendly habi­tat again.

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