Along the Fraser: Saving a marsh for salmon fry

Ditch digger along highway is creating a new home for young coho, chinook

It’s not an assault on fish habitat, but it looks like it from the road.

Mounds of freshly excavated dirt, the deep tracks of earth movers, vegetation uprooted in a marsh across the Lougheed Highway from Silvermere Lake, near Mission.

I’ve watched scoots dive for sunfish here under the critical eye of eagles perched in nearby cottonwoods, and noted the coming and going of river otters. I’d hoped it would be protected to overwinter salmon fry.

“That’s our goal,” says Natasha Cox, of the Fraser Valley Watersheds Coalition.

It’s heading up a habitat restoration project in this strip of tidal wetland Cox estimates is “the length of 181 NHL rinks.”

The marsh – which parallels the highway towards Silverdale – will be new juvenile salmon habitat. It begins  about 300 meters up the side channel near the mouth of the productive Stave River. The river’s three kilometres of gravel – from Ruskin Dam to the mouth – spawning ground for pink, and coho, and one of the biggest producers of chum (500,000) in B.C. Only the Harrison River hosts more.

But, adverse conditions here have prevented the overwintering of juvenile coho and chinook, and marshland is key in wild salmon renewal.

“This is a place where we could balance the needs of salmon and waterfowl,” says Cox, “improve habitat not previously available.”

A first step was to remove two weirs – rock barriers – someone had set in the side channel from the Stave. They restricted water movement and prevented salmon migration.

Excavation reconnected to the groundwater.

“That gave us consistent water levels and made dirty water cleaner and cooler to suit fry,” says Cox.

“Getting the water chemistry right for juvenile salmon was the vital change we needed,” added Jim Taylor, of the Stave Valley Salmon Enhancement Society, one of the groups in the FVWC Project. “It wasn’t there because of masses of canary grass, a barrier to fish. It decomposes, consuming oxygen and increasing temperature. We had to excavate the channel, pull the grasses out to expose the natural feed bank, the sedges and rushes that we want here.”

It will also discourage bass.

“Until now, any fry in here we’re prey to large predators like bass and carp. What you’ll see when we’re finished is a habitat that’s better suited to juvenile salmon.”

A more diverse habitat will also benefit water fowl, says Al Jonsson of DFO’s Restoration Unit.

“Water pepper is a natural plant for this area they like. We exposed it so it can grow, and added a little gravel too. There’s potential for salmon to spawn here.”

Other groups involved in the restoration that began in 2014 include Kwantlen First Nations, the B.C. Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (money for the widening of Lougheed Hwy.), and Ducks Unlimited, which purchased the property.

The Stave Marsh restoration – just one of FVWC’s projects – is good for declining commercial and recreational fisheries along the Fraser. Since 1997, it’s helped communities restore watersheds impacted by Hydro dams like the one at Ruskin.

Taylor and wife, Terry, have helped save salmon habitat in the Mission area since the 1980s.

Jim Taylor, a school trustee, taught kids and teachers about salmon enhancement at the river’s edge for years. With DFO help, he led classes of students – mine included – to set and pull gill nets in the fall, and mix eggs and milt in buckets. We transported fertilized eggs to George Donatelli’s hatchery in Silverdale and one on Taylor’s property, then celebrated by roasting marshmallows around camp fires and drinking hot chocolate.

The importance of wild salmon wasn’t recognized by the former Conservative government, but that hasn’t slowed the work of their local champions.

In 2013, Ducks Unlimited presented the Taylors a richly-deserved Community Conservation Award.

 

– By Jack Emberly, a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.

 

Maple Ridge News

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