A slow start to this year’s salmon run in Stoney Creek
The salmon return in Burnaby's most successful salmon-bearing creek so far has been disappointing for local streamkeepers
In the shadows that envelop Stoney Creek, Luka Kovacic is not an easy target for a photograph.
The 12-year-old is on a mission, walking against the creek’s current. Waders and boots keep him dry, with the water reaching in some places up past his knees and in others just to his ankles.
He’s leading his mother, Suzana Kovacic, who struggles to keep up. It’s her first time participating in the salmon count. Luka, on the other hand, is much more experienced.
His whole childhood, he marvelled at the creek and wanted to get that up-close perspective of the waters that run behind his house. Ever since he and his father, George Kovacic, connected with the Stoney Creek Environmental Committee several years ago, he’s had his excuse to get his boots wet—at the annual salmon run.
As Suzana cautiously steps from stone to stone, she jokes that Luka won’t let her take the easy route. The loose gravel, where her boots would more easily gain purchase, mustn’t be disturbed—that’s where the salmon lay their eggs.
Luka, meanwhile, charges well ahead of her, having the act of walking through the creek inscribed to muscle memory. And with his sharp eye, he’s taking the role of spotter, while Suzana marks down his findings.
A male fish here; a couple females there; a mort (that is, a dead fish) down the way.
A bad start
Chum can be differentiated between males and females rather easily up close. Aside from size, the most notable marker is the direction of the stripes—vertical for males, horizontal for females.
But looking through the rippling water as the fish twist and turn—that’s a whole other level.
Going down Stoney Creek, from the Coquitlam-Burnaby border towards the Brunette River, the fish aren’t prevalent today. And that’s a bad sign for the salmon return yet to come.
It’s the last day of October, and the sun is shining outside the creek. But the rays struggle to penetrate the wall of trees, where Luka and Suzana conduct one-third of the day’s salmon count.
Also lining the side of the creek are onlookers, people who have stopped in their tracks to catch a glimpse of the salmon run.
"As a streamkeeper, you always pray and hope that it will be better."
Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon
Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon
Beyond the ecological benefit, the return of salmon to Stoney Creek—following decades of work by streamkeepers—is a cultural phenomenon, George notes. Along the path, he stops several times to point out the salmon he’s seen to the onlookers.
The fish are returning home from the ocean, at the end of their four-year life cycle. In spring 2018, these fish would have hatched from the thousands of eggs dropped in Stoney Creek—each salmon lays 2,500 to 3,000 of them.
After several months in their home creek, chum salmon make their way downstream, into the Brunette River, then to the Fraser River, and out into the ocean. For three years, chum live out in the ocean, their range extending to a point southwest of the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, according to the BC Salmon Marketing Council, before returning home.
That thousands of eggs are laid in Stoney Creek is nothing short of miraculous. And each of those eggs is, itself, a prayer—a little, red ball of chance—for the future of the species.
“If one fish deposits 3,000 eggs, you will be lucky to get back two fish,” says Stoney Creek Environmental Committee president John Templeton.
The troubled lives of fish
Salmon lives are at threat from the moment their eggs are planted in the bed of the stream.
Heavy waterflow can wipe out a salmon nest, called a redd.
The eggs currently being laid may have been lucky to have dodged last week’s storm. Templeton points to the example of the Chilliwack River, which normally flows at 30-80 cubic metres per second.
“Last week, on Thursday, it was at 245 cubic metres a second,” Templeton says. “The increased velocity, the volume of water: that will churn and churn a lot of the gravel, so it’ll destroy a lot of the pink salmon and chinook salmon that have already spawned. It will just wipe them right out.”
If rain becomes heavy, as it did last week, Templeton notes waterways like Stoney Creek will similarly experience heightened waterflow.
And that, Templeton says, is a problem with climate change, which promises to increase not only the intensity of storms, but also their frequency. That could significantly raise the chances of a major waterflow event in the months-long interval between when eggs are laid each fall and when they hatch the following spring.
When they hatch, they’re vulnerable to predators—birds, bears, and other animals that prey on fish. When they make it out to the ocean, their scope of predators shifts to orcas, seals, and birds.
And that’s not to mention the threat of sea lice from fish farms and other human-caused threats, Templeton notes.
Indeed, it seems as though the world is poised to kill salmon at every turn, and yet, each year, they return to freshwater.
Low expectations for the year
This year’s return looks grim, however.
“So far the numbers are low. We should be seeing a lot more,” Templeton says.
Luka and George say the return seems to have gotten a late start. Often, salmon will begin turning up in the creek closer to the start of October—this year the return didn’t start until about halfway through the month.
On this day, Luka says 197 salmon were counted between all three sections of the creek. Templeton can’t confirm that figure offhand but says the count he was responsible for, the span of the creek from Brunette River to Lougheed Highway, saw 87 salmon on Sunday.
It’s not just Stoney Creek that’s seeing diminished returns, either. Templeton says he went to the Squamish River last week, and he didn’t come across a single chum salmon in a full day of fishing.
“It should be full of fish. I never even saw one, and that’s a huge river,” Templeton says. “I think the number that [the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimated] for the whole Lower Mainland was like half a million chum, which is a really, really low number.”
The estimated return for the Fraser River in October 2020, by comparison, was about a million chum.
It’s far from the worst season they’ve seen in Stoney Creek. Three years ago, the stream saw only about 150 fish return the entire three-month season, Templeton says.
And that spells trouble for next year, when the 2018 offspring return to the creek.
“As a streamkeeper, you always pray and hope that it will be better,” Templeton says.
At a minimum, he says, the creek needs 500 salmon to return for the population to sustain itself.
Dyer says the return should be peaking about now. Typically, in the first couple of weeks of November, the number of fish returning skyrockets, before returning more to a trickle for the rest of the season.
That movement has not yet been seen this year. If 197 salmon are counted this week, that’s about double the count seen the week prior. The fish appear in groups of three to five within a roughly 50 metre span of the creek.
But Stoney Creek Environmental Committee volunteers describe seeing up to a couple dozen fish within a similar space during the salmon’s annual rush hour.
Out on a fin
Just as the chances of fish returning to freshwater seems miraculous, so too does their journey upstream.
It may take a bit of patience—the fish take hours to climb up relatively short distances of the creek—but watching the salmon run quickly reveals why.
The fish, which can grow up to three feet in length, hover in pockets of relatively calm water for a while. Then, in an instant, the fish switches gears.
As if driven by a motor, the fish twist and turn, and their fins send a spray of water behind them as they propel themselves over inexplicably shallow sections of stream.
In doing so, the fish are hastening their own mortality. Salmon quite literally scrape tooth and scale to get upstream. By the end of their journey, they’ve bashed and ground themselves against any number of rocks to get to their point of nesting.
And it shows.
Standing in waist-deep water in a bend of Stoney Creek, salmon count volunteer Reed Clarke points out an older fish to Dyer, who’s standing atop the bank with a clipboard.
How can he tell that it’s older? Much of the healthy silver coating has given way to white splotches of skin, as the fish becomes more susceptible to bacteria.
By now, it has expended much of its energy. It stopped feeding when it entered freshwater, running only on stored fat for that last leg of its life, according to BC Salmon.
As the fish nears the end of its life, it will hopefully have laid or fertilized eggs for the next generation—and if it’s lucky, its offspring will return in a few years.
For now, it will have to contend with the other end of the life cycle, as its energy reserves deplete.
Also scattered throughout the network of creeks and tributaries, which range from a couple of metres to just a few inches wide, are those who have completed their journey—the morts.
That the salmon are dying in their home stream is itself a prayer answered—indeed, a miracle.
They have survived all the odds against them—and hopefully, they have left their own batch of prayers behind.
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