Salmon Resurgence

By Maleea Acker, October 2015

Thanks in part to volunteers like Dorothy Chambers, coho salmon are thriving in Colquitz River—but for how long?

A walk along the Gorge Waterway in the months of October and November usually yields the occasional splash of a salmon.  Last fall those splashes, amidst the smooth currents of the waterway, became a leaping river, as mature coho salmon returned from the open sea to their natal spawning streams. “It felt so amazing, exciting and satisfying” to see the high returns, Dorothy Chambers tells me. “Close to 4000 passed under the Admirals Bridge.”

Chambers, a Gorge-Tillicum resident and nurse, assisted in counting 1600 coho in the Colquitz River in 2014. This year Chambers, a Colquitz River Steward and 25-year volunteer for Friends of Cuthbert Holmes Park and the Gorge Waterway Initiative, is hoping again for thousands, but climate anomalies may pose the newest threat.

The Craigflower and Colquitz are the two major watersheds to feed Portage Inlet and the upper Gorge Waterway. Together, they include more than 7400 hectares of land. Water flows from 13 lakes, numerous bogs and flats, and over 35 creeks and brooks in Saanich and the Highlands municipalities. Flow comes from as far east as Blenkinsop Lake and as far north as Elk and Beaver Lakes, Upper and Lower Thetis and a host of lakes in the Highlands. Readers can find watershed maps on the Capital Regional District’s (CRD) website. 

The Colquitz and Craigflower watersheds are unique in the CRD in that, though urban, they continue to support coho salmon stock. The Craigflower exists largely in its original state, with more than 30 percent protected by regional parks; some coho spawn as far upstream as Prior Lake. 

The Colquitz is more compromised by development and invasive species, but Chambers has seen sculpin, trout, perch, and pumpkinseed fish in Cuthbert Holmes Park, which includes the Colquitz estuary. 

Fish counting fences exist on both streams. Over 17 community organizations currently work to monitor the number of returning salmon as well as their health and spawning rates. There are plans to construct a smolt fence, which will also allow for cutthroat trout counts. 

Chambers is concerned that the coho salmon run could be threatened by the region’s summer drought, high temperatures in local streams, and the unprecedented size of an offshore red algae bloom that stretched from California to Alaska this summer. Warmer waters that trigger algae blooms can encourage growth of less nutritious forms of zooplankton, Lara Sloan, from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), explains: “It’s like the salmon are eating popcorn instead of steak.” 

The bloom, which stayed offshore in BC, won’t necessarily affect 2015’s returns, but it could affect subsequent spring and fall runs. 

This year, it’s warmer waters in local streams that has Chambers worried. In 2013 the CRD amended its water license to allow annual summer flows from a Thetis Lake dam into Craigflower and McKenzie creeks, which helps keep salmon fry habitat from warming and drying out. But Ian Perry, senior research scientist at DFO, explains that “warmer ocean water tends to also warm the atmosphere” and that elevates local stream temperatures. “It’s not encouraging,” he admits. Salmon prefer colder water and need higher flows in creeks to reach their spawning grounds. “We expect higher than normal temperatures and lower precipitation rates to continue through the end of October” says Perry. 

Despite less than ideal meteorological conditions, Chambers isn’t easily discouraged. In 2006, while working to rehabilitate heron rookery habitat on the Colquitz River, she encountered volunteers working at a fish fence to count spawning salmon. A fish fence is a barrier temporarily placed in a river. As fish swim upstream they are caught in a box-like trap, counted, then lifted clear and set free to spawn upstream. Chambers fell in love with the process. 

Realizing that publicity was key to support for salmon, she started the Colquitz Salmonid Stewardship and Education Society with fellow volunteers Chris Bos and Barrie Goodwin, hoping that CSSES could be “a voice for the watershed.” Working with the District of Saanich, Chambers engages with local communities, leading school group tours and talking to community members about the species that call the creek home. She works long hours each spawning season, counting and tracking fish and providing information to the public, stewardship organizations and the CRD. “To see the salmon come back is a testament to the community and to conservation.”

Salmon have been called the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest. In the sea, they provide food for orca whales, seals and sea lions. When returning to the freshwater spawning habitats where they were born they are food for eagles and bears, who carry their carcasses onto the shore, providing, in turn, nutrients for forests. 

Craigflower Creek lost its salmon in the 1970s due to pollution and in-stream barriers (caused by construction of roads and houses). By the 1980s, heavy metals, petroleum, pesticides and high fecal coliform counts in the Gorge contributed to its dubious status as the most polluted waterway on the BC coast. Leaking oil tanks, fertilizers and pesticides from residential properties, storm water runoff, and the dumping of chemicals contributed to low water quality in both Craigflower Creek and Colquitz River, particularly in their passage through suburban areas. “At one point,” says Chambers, “there was not the concern for this wildlife refuge and recognition of the value of the estuary and migratory bird sanctuary.” Original plans for lands surrounding the estuary included a BMX racing track, a boat launch and community gardens in the riparian zone. “I’ve seen so many changes since I started this journey 25 years ago.”

Beginning in the 1990s, two decades of cleanup—led by volunteers, local government and the World Fisheries Trust—transformed the area. Juvenile coho were reintroduced from Goldstream River. Populations stabilized at 200-400 returning fish per year by the early 2000s. Today, the Gorge is a habitat suitable for swimmers, the native Olympia oyster and native species, despite recent incidents like Schnitzer Steel’s spill of crushed cars into the waterway. This month, Victoria will move ahead with eviction of live-aboards and abolition of long-term moorage in the Gorge, a move some argue will further improve the waterway’s health. Slowly, thanks to the efforts of many, the Gorge’s freshwater ecosystems are also reestablishing a modicum of health. 

Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke MP Randall Garrison walked with Chambers through Cuthbert Holmes Park last spring and introduced a private member’s bill to restore federal environmental protection for the Colquitz, Sooke and Todd Creek watersheds. “I found out I didn’t know very much [about the ecosystem] compared to Dorothy,” Garrison tells me by phone. He introduced the bill in part because the change of the Navigable Waters Protection Act to the Navigation Protection Act, with the passage of Bill C-45, “stripped protection from every watershed on Vancouver Island,” dropping the number of federally protected lakes and rivers from 2.5 million down to just 159. 

In 2012, Chamber, Bos and Goodwin were awarded Saanich Environmental Awards in biodiversity conservation. What really keeps Chambers optimistic about continued resurgence of wildlife, including salmon, though, are the changes she’s seen in people’s behaviours. “I think I could die now and be satisfied that enough people would carry on this work.” Meanwhile, she’s crossing her fingers that climate change won’t negate everyone’s efforts.

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.