Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers volunteers dismantle a fish-counting fence and viewing box in Grandon Creek on June 30, following a three-month count of coho salmon smolt. — J.R. Rardon photo

Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers net low coho count

Volunteers perform first fish count in local stream

In their first count of coho salmon smolt in Grandon Creek, the Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers got a minimal return for a maximum amount of effort this spring.

Next spring, they’ll look to reverse that outcome.

“We’ve counted around 70 (coho) smolt, which is less than we anticipated, quite frankly,” streamkeeper David James said in late June, as a dozen volunteers dismantled the group’s temporary fish fence and counting box in the cool, shaded waters of the stream just above Highway 19A. “But up and down the coast we’re finding this is a very low-output year and some other fish fences are running on the order of 10 to 15 per cent of normal levels.”

James said the hot, dry summers of the past two years may have played a role in the low numbers of coho in Grandon and other Vancouver Island waterways in which counts were taken. He said coho are sensitive to warm water temperatures. Hot, dry conditions, combined with low water levels, can impact their access to food and oxygen.

“After coho hatch in February or March, they stay the whole summer through in the stream before they go out the following year,” he said. “If it gets hot, they don’t survive, except in the deepest extremes. And there aren’t that many of them in this little stream.”

The Qualicum Beach Streamkeepers is one of a number of like-minded volunteer organizations in communities up and down the B.C. coast, tasked with preserving and enhancing natural salmon habitat, as well as providing education and outreach on salmonid enhancement and fish health.

Its members liaise with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, receiving guidance and — in some best-case scenarios — funding to undertake projects such as building pools and fish ladders. The streamkeepers then share the results of those projects with DFO.

“One of the measurement factors is, how are we doing?” said James. “How many salmon are resident in the stream; how many are being hatched and going out to sea? If you can’t measure it, you don’t know how you’re doing.”

So this year, the group undertook its first count of coho smolt in Grandon Creek, one of three local streams under its stewardship, along with Beach Creek and Little Qualicum River. In late March, volunteers braved the turbulent and icy waters of the creek to place a two-piece section of screened fencing across the stream, just above the culvert that carries the water under Highway 19A to the ocean.

The fences were shaped in a ‘V’, directing fish into a tube that led to a viewing box, through which counters could look each day to record the number of ocean-bound smolt before releasing them downstream.

The work involved driving large metal stakes to hold the fence upright, plastic sheeting to prevent fish from swimming beneath the fence, and dozens of sandbags to hold the entire works in place.

And even that didn’t work in a year that featured a particularly cold, wet spring.

“It seemed to go on forever,” James said of the late-winter conditions. “We had one event over a two-week period the water was so high it damaged the fence and we had to shut (the count) down.”

Not that there was anything to count. After painstakingly rebuilding the damaged fence, the streamkeepers had to wait nearly six weeks from its initial installation before water temperature and conditions coaxed the salmon to begin their out-migration.

“The fish decide when they’re going to leave; we don’t decide,” said James. “You don’t want to start too late because you can miss some. But we’d keep opening the box every morning and take a look. Nothing, nothing, nothing, then a trout. Nothing, nothing… a crayfish. And so forth. It was very slow.”

The streamkeepers have vowed to continue the count for at least the next two years, hoping to build on this spring’s baseline count. James said they’re going to ask DFO’s permission to install a permanent base of wood or concrete, onto which the fence can be attached with short rods in the spring.

That would eliminate the need for all the soggy sandbags the volunteers had to haul up the hill during June’s cleanup, and would make cleaning maple seed pods and other debris from the screens a simple proposition during high-water periods.

“Now we’ve had some experience,” James said. “This stream is very steep; it’s very quick. It goes up quite high within two or three hours of a heavy rainfall.”

On the other hand, he said, the water in the short stream is almost all groundwater, which remains cool in the summer in the deep shade of its tree-lined bank. That provides ideal conditions for coho fry and smolt.

And a shaded trail running alongside the creek provides traffic for potential outreach for the streamkeepers.

“One nice thing is, this is a great spot to talk to the local residents, which is part of our mission,” said James. “So it’s a great setup to talk to people and have them ask questions and look at the fish.”