Saving Salmon: Pole Seining in Parksville
How locals with a love of fishing are leading the charge to protect salmon stocks in Parksville.
By: Katia Bannister
Rick, Dick, Randy, and Doyle might sound a little bit like the name of a band, but this enthusiastic band of Parksville locals are spearheading a volunteer initiative to ensure that Coho salmon fry continue to thrive in the Parksville-Qualicum area for years to come.
I met with Rick Walz and Dick Dobler at Dick’s house in Parksville. After brief introductions, Rick hopped in the car with me while Dick went to pick up Doyle Meservia, another volunteer who would be joining us for the day. As a less than frequent visitor to Parksville and the surrounding area, Rick guided me through the town and back onto Highway 19. As we worked our way through the morning traffic, Rick told me about his involvement with the Coho fry rescue in the Parksville-Qualicum area and where his interest in freeing stranded fry originated.
As a longtime buddy of Dick’s, Rick was a likely candidate when it came to who his friend would want to rope into fry rescuing. Over the years, Rick had watched Dick make his first forays into ecosystem preservation and restoration through getting involved with the Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society (MVIHES). MVIHES is an organization dedicated to the recovery of wild Pacific salmon through the conservation and restoration of watersheds, estuaries and shorelines in central Vancouver Island. The society also seeks to facilitate relationships between people and place through a variety of partnerships that focus on field study, education and restoration.
Picking fry out of the seine net - Photo by Katia Bannister
Dick’s enthusiasm as a volunteer eventually landed him a seat on MVIHES’s Board of Directors. Now retired, but having spent his life working in land survey and construction in the region, as well as having fished life-long in the Englishman River, Dick has been well-placed to observe changes in his watershed as a result of overfishing, overdevelopment, and climate change. Hence, his motivation to get his friends and fellow retirees out in the watershed and doing fieldwork with him, Rick being one of them.
“One day Dick invited me to come with him to do the rescue and that was that! I’ve been coming out when I can ever since,” said a smiling Rick.
We drove across a few of the overpasses that have been built to allow cars to travel above the region's salmon-bearing rivers and streams without harm to the watershed, including those that passed overhead of Whisky Creek and the Little Qualicum River. After a quick stint of highway driving, Rick motioned to the roadside up ahead and pointed to the pullout just before the bridge over French Creek, where we would be plodding down a stretch of dry creek bed for the rest of the morning.
We were the first volunteers to have made it to French Creek but did not have to wait long before the rest of the group arrived. Dick and Doyle pulled up shortly after in Dick’s truck, fully loaded with buckets, nets, and pole seines, and were followed quickly by Randy Walz, Rick’s brother and fellow fry rescuer, who had driven in his own car.
More greetings were exchanged over the sound of cars and trucks speeding by only meters away, and in a bid to escape the noise as quickly as possible, everyone rushed to collect their fry rescue supplies, lock their vehicles and begin the descent to French Creek. As we made our way down the embankment and through the dry yellow tallgrass that blanketed the slope, it occurred to me just how huge the bridge above us was, and how difficult it would be for any travellers — locals and tourists alike — to see the watershed and how it reaches towards the horizon, cradling the forest landscape. Seated in a vehicle zooming along Highway 19, most travellers wouldn't have any indication that they are driving a hundred meters above of a prominent salmon-bearing creek in the Qualicum watershed, if not for a small sign reading “French Creek” located off to the far side of the bridge.
“Bucket Boy” filling his bucket - Photo by Katia Bannister
But down on the creek bed — even in the middle of August when heat waves and drought conditions have shrunk the creek to a mere fraction of its typical size, and the water pools rather than flows — it’s not hard to tell that French Creek is teeming with life. From the mosquitos following our work party down the creek bed, to the alders filtering in sunlight overhead, to the water skeeters zooming around our submerged ankles, to the kingfishers flitting from tree to tree and screaming at us for intruding their buffet — life burst forth from French Creek.
Undeterred by the buzzing bugs and shrill birds, Rick, Randy, Dick, and Doyle set to work first eyeballing the remaining pools for movement, and then peering closer to the pools to scrutinize if what they had seen was indeed a Coho fry, or perhaps instead a stickleback, crayfish, or particularly large pond skater.
Many of the pools along the course of French Creek were far too shallow to pole seine in, so often enough the team would opt for small nets. And many of these pools were not only shallow, but sludgy and murky too — making it tricky to see exactly what was bug, bark, leaf or fish.
But the group was in no rush, laughing merrily at their failed attempts to capture the fry, and laughing harder at the jokes and jabs each would make about the other.
“We’re all good friends,” Rick told me. “And it makes us a good team.”
Dick, Doyle, Randy, and Rick - Photo by Katia Bannister
Clearly, teamwork and comradery are serving Rick, Dick, Randy and Doyle well in their volunteer efforts to rescue fry in the Parksville-Qualicum area. And at the end of the morning, after many bucket loads of fry scooped from shallow brown puddles and transported downstream via bucket to bigger deeper pools by Doyle — aptly nicknamed “Bucket Boy” — the team estimated that they had saved a few hundred fry.
“Bucket Boy” releasing his catch - Photo by Katia Bannister
Three or four hundred salmon fry may not sound like a lot to some, but a returning adult Coho can lay as many 4,500 eggs and with salmon stocks in the Salish Sea suffering, every rescued fry is a glimmer of hope for the future. That’s why we need more fry rescuers working to save salmon across Vancouver Island. That’s why we need you.
Are you keen to get out in your watershed and live in the Parksville-Qualicum area? Send an email indicating your interest to the Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society ([email protected]) and start joining in on MVIHES projects like the French Creek fry rescue. Whether you live within or outside of the Parksville-Qualicum area you can join a community of British Columbians who are taking action to secure our watersheds today for our children and for our grandchildren. Go to codebluebc.ca for more information.