Spores to help the salmon

Kyle Kulbacki prepares the gear for kelp planting on a 40-foot herring skiff last weekend. - NEIL HORNER PHOTO
Kyle Kulbacki prepares the gear for kelp planting on a 40-foot herring skiff last weekend.
— image credit: NEIL HORNER PHOTO

If you look at them really, really closely, they look kind of like Star Wars fighters, says Ken Kirkby, but they're actually the very first stage of one of the oldest life forms on earth.

They are also, he said, possibly one of the key pieces of the puzzle of how to bring coho salmon back to the east coast of Vancouver Island.

The microscopic specks are spores, Kirkby said, hopefully the precursers of what would soon become 120-foot long strands of brown kelp.

Kirkby, the former head of the Nile Creek Enhancement Society, is motoring past Sandy Island in a 40-foot herring skiff piloted by Andy Hilke and his crew member, Kyle Kulbacki. They both work for Island Scallops, one of the partners Kirkby and his team were able to bring together in their successful effort to rehabilitate the salmon run in Nile creek. With them are Colleen Sawyer from the Royal Bank and Little River Enhancement Society members Peter Williams and Dave Kozakowski.

It's cold on the water and we huddle in the tiny cabin, out of the wind.

"Hopefully, we are going to do what has never been done before by a volunteer organization on this coast," Kirkby said, "reforest kelp."

There used to be kelp beds in the area, lots of them, he said, but for one reason or another, they've largely disappeared.

"When I was first here in 1958 as an 18-year-old, this whole place was full of kelp beds," he said.

"You could row your dinghy out and tie up to the kelp and with a spinning rod catch all the coho you wanted. Where did the kelp go? We don't know."

That's a real problem, he said, because Nile Creek, the Little River and other fish-bearing streams discharge schools of juvenile salmon every year – but with no kelp, they've got nowhere to hide. Kirkby likens it to having a baby and putting it out on the street to fend for itself.

"Kelp one of the most important ingredients in the entire natural mix," he said. "It is a nutrient, a brown algae and very ancient – it came right after the single celled organisms. When it's growing it makes these great big forests that provide a home for endless creatures and it feeds the micro-organisms and the bigger and bigger creatures until, eventually you get to the fish. It provides cover for young salmon going to sea and it provides a home to protect them from predators such as, seals, sea lions and the like when they come back."

Sandy Island falls behind and soon we begin approaching the waters off the Comox airport. Hilke unfolds a chart and compares it to what he sees on his GPS on the console. He points to a dotted line heading straight out to sea on the chart.

"We had some divers do an underwater survey for us and they pointed out an area that is about 30 feet deep, with the bottom a mixture of rock and sand so we can set the anchors properly," Hilke said. "There used to be kelp here although there isn't anymore so we knew it grew here one time. There was an old sewage line that came out here and that they said was one of the best spots going."

Kulbacki begins preparing four large anchors, which will be used to stretch out a thick, 200-foot line, suspended with floats about five feet off the bottom.

Around this line, Kirkby explained, they would twist spools of what had once been bright white string — now a dirty brown.

"Onto that main line we take the spools and we put on those 30 metres of twine that is fully impregnated with kelp spores," he explained. "That spore goes through many generations from a spore to a kelpling and out of the hundreds of trillions of spores, only a few will become full blown kelp."

The spores were collected from mature kelp fronds, he said.

"You take the kelp and disinfect it with iodine to make sure there aren't any diseases," he said. "Then you put it in layers of paper towl and leave it there for 24 hours, which stresses the kelp and causes them to release the spores. We take these tubes of PVC and we wrap them with 30 metres or so of twine and put them inside a saline mix and leave it there until they glom onto it. Under a very powerful microscope they look like Star Wars jets. They are looking for a place to settle and when they do they turn the string brown. Then, 44 days later they have grown through a series of changes and to gametophytes and other Latin words and, lo and behold we have a kelpling."

It takes a couple of tries to successfully set the first two anchors and, with time running short before dark, they agree to set only the one line, instead of two.

Then, on the third try, success. Both anchors have held and the team gets busy, threading the line through the pieces of  PVC pipe and then spooling out the  twine.

If all goes well, by June they should have a good idea of whether their experiment has succeeded or not.

"Once there is enough UV the kelp starts to grow and it can grow to 120 feet in four and a half months," he said. "It's the fastest growing thing on the planet. It's very spectacular. When it gets going you can actually sit there on the bottom and watch it grow."

If it's successful, the small kelp forest will spread, providing shelter and food to the fish both Kirkby and Williams are raising in their respective creeks.

"I think it will impact on our project," Williams said. "We know the fry come out here. Where they go after they use this kind of refuge, we don't know, but we know this is where they start, so we want to build as big a defensive wall as we can and give them the best start possible."

So, will it work?

Kirkby laughs.

"I'll respond with the phrase we've hammered into ourselves at Nile Creek over the years," he said. "I don't know."

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