Local organization investigating fish ‘survival bottlenecks’ in Shelly Creek

A passive integrated transponders (PIT) tag is implanted into a fish abdomen. || MVIHES photo.
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Parksville conservationists will be part of a large study looking to better understand salmon and trout survival rates on the east coast of Vancouver Island. 

The volunteers’ goal is to learn more about “survival bottlenecks,” events that drastically reduce the size of a population. Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society (MVIHES) is investigating the link between recent declines in chinook, coho and steelhead populations in the Salish Sea region. 

It will implant tiny metal tags, known as passive integrated transponders (PIT), into the salmon. The tags each contain a unique code with information such as its species, age and where it was tagged.

The project is part of a larger study by the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) and BC Conservation Foundation (BCCF) to tag over 50,000 wild and hatchery juvenile salmon and trout throughout the Salish Sea region each year for the next four years. The $1.6 million study is funded by PSF, according to Peter Law, vice president of MVIHES. 

“The Englishman River is just one of many rivers where fish will be tagged. And since Shelly Creek is a tributary of the Englishman and it’s where we operate our smolt trap each spring, the coho and steelhead we capture and count in our trap are being tagged by (BCCF) before they are released,” reads a release from MVIHES.

When a tagged fish swims over antenna arrays that have been installed across the bottom of creeks and rivers, the code is picked up and stored by the arrays so the movements of individuals can be tracked. The tags can be detected at high-traffic fish cleaning sites, heron rookeries and sites popular with seals and sea lions, according to MVIHES. 

The data will provide insight into salmon and trout predation rates. Surviving fish will be scanned as they return to their rivers and creeks of origin to spawn.

“The creek provides limited, but valuable habitat for coho and trout populations. The bad news is the water quality in the fall, specifically its turbidity [cloudy with suspended particles] values, are the highest in Oceanside,” said Law. “The ugly news now is that the stream is suffering from wildly fluctuating annual flows —almost drying up in the wintertime.”

He said a report done in 2017 found the creek’s natural water balance has been altered by land development in Parksville. 

“The number one recommendation from the report involves all land owners in the watershed. To restore the water balance, we need to have rain water targets to restore what’s called shallow ground water, where most creek flows come from during the summer months,” said Law.

Once the group has COVID-19 protocol clearance, volunteers will organize pop up tent sessions to inform residents about how they can help by creating rain gardens on their property. A rain garden is a shallow area of ground or dip designed to receive water runoff from hard surfaces, such as roofs and pavement. 

“Rain gardens should be an integral part of stormwater management in all development projects within the city,” said Barb Riordan, MVIHES president.

“Every time we dig a ditch or we put impervious surface down, we actually take away the balance. The water that naturally would want to seep down into the soil and move slowly across the landscape to a creek. That’s been diverted.” The diverted water becomes surface water — it moves quickly and erodes the creek, degrading its quality.

MVIHES plans to do habitat restoration at Shelly Farm, where thousands of coho and hundreds of trout spend part of their lifecycle. The organization said it received $22,000 from PSF to complete the project. It also recommended the city remove the culvert at Shelly Creek near Blower Road because it contributes to the erosion and is a barrier to fish passage

It will mail a survey to 175 households in the upper Corfield Street and Butler Avenue areas asking residents about their awareness of the problem and how they can help.

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