Saving Salmon: Community Watershed Watches in Comox
Creating habitat and community around salmon in the Comox Valley, smolts and returning adults alike.
This is the second installment in a three-part series about saving salmon on Vancouver Island. Read the third installment here.
By: Katia Bannister
The Comox Valley on Vancouver Island’s east coast, stretching from the alpine to the Strait of Georgia — the unceded territories of the K‘ómoks Nation, for which the region is named. The valley has always been known as a land of plenty, fertile soil, salmon-bearing rivers, and a vast expanse of coastal temperate rainforest.
Home to a booming population with rapidly growing needs, the Comox Valley has seen a great deal of change in the past century. Forests levelled in favour of farmland and developments, creeks and rivers rerouted to accommodate ever-expanding communities, commercial enterprises popping up, eager to draw upon natural resources. These changes have resulted in additional draws and pressures on local watersheds, and have altered — and in many cases, channelled, shrunken and disconnected — the rivers, creeks, and streams that local salmon species rely on for habitat and spawning grounds.
But despite the challenges that are impacting the health of watersheds in the Comox Valley, the future of local salmon habitat and four of the five British Columbian salmon species such as — Chinook, Coho, Chum, and Pink salmon — that live and spawn in this “land of plenty” is looking promising thanks to ecological restoration and rehabilitation efforts, and the dedicated work of volunteers and Comox Valley locals that are contributing to a “community watershed watch” culture.
Curious to see how restoration, fish rescue efforts, and community were coming together in the Comox Valley after forays into fry rescuing with volunteers in both Lake Cowichan and Parksville, I made the journey up-island to meet with freshwater defenders from the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers and Tsolum River Restoration Society.
I met Caroline Heim off Headquarters Road near the banks of the Tsolum River. Since 2016, Caroline has been the Program Coordinator for the Tsolum River Restoration Society. With the society, Caroline splits her time between outreach and education, working on restoration projects, grant writing, and overseeing annual fish monitoring projects.
Caroline sharing her notes with Kylie and Aleena - Photo by Katia Bannister
Also joining us were Kylie Adebar and Aleena Oates, two recent UBCO and UVic graduates, and like me, summer students working in the watershed. Both of them speak very highly of their experiences with the Tsolum River Restoration Society this past summer.
“Working for the Tsolum River Restoration Society has been really great,” says Kylie. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to develop an understanding of the different fish species and the amphibians in the Tsolum River watershed.”
Aleena agrees. “There is nothing quite like getting up at the crack of dawn to help toadlets migrate across busy intersections,” she says. “And nothing like salvaging hundreds of smolts who, without the help of dedicated volunteers and staff, would have no chance at surviving the heatwave.”
And throughout a summer of learning, Kylie and Aleena have spent their time with the society to work towards a restored Tsolum River — including a self-supporting fish population — stewarded by an informed and involved community that is committed to defending their watershed for generations to come. Today, all three of the staff representing the Tsolum River Restoration Society were excited to show me some of that work.
Caroline led the group, striding off into the nearby field and pointing as she spoke.
Caroline checking her notes - Photo by Katia Bannister
“Towhee Creek looks almost like a ditch because it’s been channelized” as her hand gestured yonder. She explained that the creek — and tributary of the Tsolum River — provided essential habitat for juvenile salmon, and that the Tsolum River Restoration Society had played a significant role in increasing productivity of the tributary.
“In 2005, the TRRS enhanced the creek to create more winter habitat, specifically for Coho to overwinter in,” explained Caroline. “So we created six pools and redirected the creek to make it more fish-friendly, and less of a ditch as it would have been before development in the area.”
But for as much good as they do, the ponds have some drawbacks.
“The problem is that in the winter, when the water levels are really high in the Tsloum, the Coho will move into Towhee creek because they like off-channel habitat and then they will go into these ponds. And then in the spring, around April and May, they will want to leave because they are smolting, but then they become stuck in the ponds as the Towhee creek levels drop — this is due to climate change creating shifts in the local climate and problems with the pond design.”
So every year when the water levels drop and the newly smolted Coho find themselves stranded, Tsolum River Restoration Society organizes community members in the Comox Valley to help save the smolts.
“This year we’ve pulled 7,000 smolts out of these ponds,” shares Caroline. “It was mostly done by volunteers, and since the high school is right beside the creek we often try and get them involved. We also do field trips with elementary school kids and get them to help as well. But our volunteers are mostly older retired people.”
The Tsolum River Restoration Society engages these volunteers in not only the “smolt liberation” in the spring, but also the fry rescue in the summer. And just like other groups across Vancouver Island, the society is currently prioritizing the rescue of salmon fry from rapidly drying tributaries within their watershed.
Pole seines in hand, and clad in gumboots, everyone piled into Caroline’s van, and we set off on our rescue mission. We drove through acres upon acres of treeless farmland before arriving at one of the shaded tributaries that snakes its way through the forest that borders the Tsolum River.
Caroline and Kylie walking the creekbed - Photo by Katia Bannister
We walked and talked while dodging branches, and losing our footing on the algae-covered creek bed, pausing at any conspicuous-looking puddles to search for fry that may have been trapped when the drought hit Vancouver Island, until reaching the confluence between the creek and the Tsolum River.
“Well,” pondered Caroline, “there’s no fish in any of these ponds. It could be that they all died, because it was pretty critical there for a while with the heatwave, but it’s also possible they were washed out by the rain that followed soon after.”
Caroline surveying the Tsolum River - Photo by Katia Bannister
There was, however, another option that Caroline posited possible. And that was that one of the homeowners living nearby may have helped move some of the fry when the water levels were at their lowest.
“We really do want to be connecting with homeowners,” expressed Caroline. “Some of them already take interest, but we want to be able to give them a bit of training and teach them how to handle fish properly. We want people to be caring about the river, lots of people live right on it! And of those people, there are a lot that truly love the river.”
“You’re looking to build this culture of stewardship and observation. A Community Watershed Watch, like a Neighborhood Watch, but for our waters,” I mused.
The next and final stop for me on my tour of the Comox Valley’s watersheds was Morrison Creek, stewarded by — you guessed it — the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers. The Morrison Creek watershed is a subbasin of the Puntledge River watershed, originating from several springs near the Inland Island Highway, and flowing down through Morrison and Arden Creek before reaching the Puntledge river. When I arrived at Arden Creek for a tour of the watershed, there to greet me was Janet Gemmell, a committed streamkeeper and an enthusiastic resident of the Morrison Creek watershed. Upon my arrival, Janet launched into detailed descriptions of projects that the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers had undertaken and how they had been engaging community members in preserving and rehabilitating the Morrison Creek watershed.
Every few sentences her words were punctuated by the shrill twittering of a nosy little nuthatch that flitted back and forth between the ground and nearby trees, cocking its head at us.
Chuckling at the nuthatch, Janet continued, “The Morrison Creek watershed is home to four of the five species of salmon we have here, starting with the Pinks in the fall, and then right after the Pinks start coming, Coho, and then there’s Chum, and also there’s Chinook.”
She gestured towards the creek, which runs alongside Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary, and led me towards the bank.
Janet with the Morrison Creek Lamprey sign - Photo by Katia Bannister
“The Morrison Creek watershed,” she told me, “is also home to the Morrison Creek lamprey, which only exists here. It’s some sort of variety, or population, or subspecies of the Western Brook Lamprey. There’s only one other subspecies like it which lives in Cowichan Lake, and they both stay in freshwater and are parasitic, which is unusual because the other lamprey that live here are either parasitic but just spawn in freshwater and then head back out to the ocean, much like the salmon, or they are freshwater dwelling but non-parasitic.”
Stepping away from the banks of Arden Creek, Janet turned, sweeping her arm across the landscape. “Arden Creek used to have a completely different course,” she explained. But through the passing of time, and enduring farming, logging and the building of the school so close by, the creek had been diverted far from its natural course, and turned almost into a ditch.
“It was just really straight,” said Janet, “with really steep sides and no features.” Without tree branches falling into the creek, rocks and gravel causing ebbs and flows in movement of water, or the widening, curving, pooling, rushing and narrowing of a naturally flowing creek, there is insufficient habitat or oxygen for resident creatures like salmon, lampreys, trout and crayfish. So to improve habitat in Arden Creek, the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers launched the Arden Creek Restoration Project in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, School District 71 and Current Environmental Ltd. This is especially important as, due to the discovery of the Morrison Creek lamprey, the area is legally protected critical habitat under the Species at Risk Act.
Janet surveying the creekbed - Photo by Katia Bannister
In the creek, they added stumps, logs, rocks, gravel and boulders, and as Janet and I walked creekside, I could see little Coho fry swimming in the tiny eddies that had been created by these additions. “We realized we couldn't really change the course of the stream,” explained Janet, “so we had to do things that would pinch and widen it, like build it out on one bank, which gives the water more of a meandering course and in turn helps to expose gravel for spawning and remove slit — making it more of a creek and less of a ditch.”
But the Arden Creek Restoration Project doesn't end here. Janet has a lot of plans for the future too.
“We brought in a bunch of topsoil so that we can get the kids to plant. We want them to be involved. And so do the teachers, there’s a couple teachers here who are just really keen to get the kids out doing things,” said an excited Janet.
It is volunteers, watershed residents and school kids that are helping to change the outlook of Arden Creek, and support the return of prospering salmon and lamprey populations. “Most of our volunteers come from the school and the neighbourhood,” says Janet. Those volunteers have created trails throughout the watershed — mostly in Puntledge Park — so that people can enjoy the Morrison Creek watershed. Those volunteers have been participating in aquatic monitoring and surveying. Those volunteers — largely the school-aged — have made signs identifying native plants and animals. Those volunteers pick up garbage in the park. They watch for potential watershed threats. They look out for each other and their watershed. They care.
In my conversation with Janet she — just like Caroline had — described a Community Watershed Watch. Local people who care, community members, watershed residents, all coming together, tributaries feeding into a rushing river, for watershed health and prosperity for years to come.
Join your local “Community Watershed Watch”! Try getting involved with restoration projects in the Comox Valley through the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers. To learn more about upcoming events and happenings that you can join in on, send them an email at [email protected].
Fish rescuing sound more appealing to you? The Tsolum River Restoration Society would love it if you joined, let them know you’re keen by sending an email to [email protected].
And wherever you live, whether in the Comox Valley or anywhere else in our province, if you care about securing and sustaining BC's fresh water sources, you should check out CodeBlueBC and count yourself among a community of British Columbians who are defending our watersheds for future generations of our families and communities. Sign up at www.codebluebc.ca.