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This Town in British Columbia is Using Dead Fish to Restore Its Rivers

The key to saving Canada’s rivers could be dead fish carcasses.

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Frozen dead fish carcassPhoto: Courtesy of Shanna Baker/Hakai Magazine

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.

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Saving Canada's riversPhoto: Courtesy of Shanna Baker/Hakai Magazine

Luring Life with Death

“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, push-ing 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.

© 2017, Frances Backhouse. From “Throwing Dead Fish For Fun Aan Ecological Profit,” Hakai Magazine (June 1, 2017).  

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada