The Key to Saving Canada’s Rivers
On a chilly January morning in 2017, four- year-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 half-hour 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 make-over. 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 Eng-lish 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.