New life offers hope for lost urban streams

Record numbers of chum salmon have been returning to Still Creek in Burnaby

Right on the heels of the release of the Cohen Commission report into the decline of the Fraser River sockeye salmon that, Hon. Bruce Cohen wrote, face an uncertain future, record numbers of chum salmon have been returning to Still Creek in Burnaby.

Given the great concern over the health of our salmon stocks in recent years, the story of the chum salmon’s return is great on several levels.

Chum salmon are also known as “dog” salmon because of the large canine teeth of spawning males. They are the second largest Pacific salmon behind the Chinook. Chum can weigh in at over 18 kilograms, some 40 pounds. Found in nearly 900 coastal streams in the province, the young fry head for sea as soon as they emerge from the gravel where they spend about four years in the ocean before returning to their birth stream to spawn. But like all salmon, returning runs are put at risk in the face of polluted water and degraded habitat, threatening the next generation.

For decades Still Creek, which runs through an industrial corridor, had the unenviable reputation of being perhaps one of the most polluted waterways in the Lower Mainland. It was the victim of runoff from heavy industrial and urban development, sewage drainage and the recipient of overflows from roads and parking lots. Fresh water life withered until one day a few people with a vision stood at the stream bank and made a commitment for change.

“I’ve been actively involved with Still Creek as a river advocate for close to four decades,” said   Mark Angelo, Chair Emeritus, Rivers Institute at BCIT, and Chair and Founder of B.C. and World Rivers Day. “Still Creek is 12 kilometers in length and runs through both Vancouver and Burnaby before emptying into Burnaby Lake. From there, Burnaby Lake connects with the Brunette River which eventually runs into the Fraser in New Westminster.”

Angelo said that there has been an extensive effort on the part of groups such as the BCIT Fish and Wildlife Program, the City of Burnaby, BCIT Rivers Institute, the City of Vancouver, Metro Vancouver, stream-keeper groups, and others to turn things around.  As a result, water quality improved noticeably in recent years. Both in-stream and streamside habitat were enhanced and an improved fish ladder was installed downstream at the outlet of Burnaby Lake.

The dedicated effort paid off. Young school children learning about salmon life cycles can now see for themselves the results of stream conservation while seniors, who may not have seen returning salmon to local streams in decades, can enjoy the spectacle once more. These eye-witnessing results serve to foster stream rehabilitation in other areas.

“It has been so exciting to the see the first major chum salmon run return to Still Creek in many, many decades, perhaps going back 80 to 90 years,” said Angelo. “For many locals, this might be their first experience seeing spawning salmon. And after witnessing something like this so close to home, I think many will look at urban streams in a whole different light.”

The salmon have been seen in large numbers along the Burnaby stretch of Still Creek and up tributaries such as Beecher Creek. They have been very visible in the main stem of the creek, especially where it parallels Grandview. Angelo predicts they may even make it as far upstream as Renfrew ravine.

“From my perspective, to see this once severely damaged stream come back to life highlights the fact that, if there is a will, and a plan is put in place and adhered to, then we can turn things around,” said Angelo. “We should never give up on any river.”

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