Tsolum River Restoration Society volunteers work in Towhee Creek to retrieve stranded coho salmon. Photo supplied.

Comox Valley river guardians keeping busy during COVID-19 times

Tsolum River Restoration Society memberss say young fish get stranded in the most unlikely places

Despite the arrival of COVID 19, the Tsolum River Restoration Society (TRRS) is as busy as ever.

TRRS volunteers have been trapping and rescuing stranded coho salmon out of Towhee Creek, which is a small but important tributary to the Tsolum. The creek starts in the forest up the hill from G.P. Vanier Secondary school and flows down beside the soccer turf field, crosses under Headquarters Road, then meanders through the CV Exhibition Grounds before entering the Tsolum. Towhee has five ponds that provide habitat for overwintering juvenile coho salmon that seek out quiet waters off the main Tsolum channel during winter high flows.

Unfortunately, with less rainfall this spring these fish become stuck in the ponds, where they can die when the ponds dry up. That is where the volunteers come in. Incorporating social distancing has changed the way we do things and we have trained family groups of two to set baited minnow traps, record data, and release the caught fish into the Tsolum. In the first pond over 1,100 coho have been captured and relocated. Two other pond salvages are underway.

This work highlights the significance of small creeks that are often overlooked as worthless ditches but that provide seasonal habitat for juvenile wild salmon. It also shows that small family groups can carry on with important stream stewardship with adaptive planning.

Further up the Tsolum near Railway Ave in Merville, TRRS director and local resident Laura O’Brien has been monitoring a channel beside the Tsolum where large numbers of coho smolts have become separated from the main channel. These fish are silver in colour and are ready to migrate to the ocean. Unfortunately, they became stuck in river margins or flood channels and need assistance to exit. In three weeks, Laura has relocated over 1,300 smolts from a single side channel using baited g-traps.

If you are a riverfront resident or frequent visitor to the Tsolum or tributaries and notice stranded fish in isolated pools, please let us know by calling 250-897-4670. If we combine our efforts we can assist thousands of wild salmonids who are in a critical migratory phase of their lives.

Other activities TRRS is doing is assessing the distribution of fish throughout the watershed. We are adding to our database and knowledge to better understand the movements of fish both upstream and downstream throughout their lives. In our fish mapping studies we recently found abandoned gillnet and garden netting in Portuguese Creek. This material, known as ghost fishing net, can continually trap and kill fish. This discarded net had trapped a seven-year-old resident female cutthroat trout that was still alive but injured to the point of having to be euthanized. We need to keep plastics and human garbage out of our waterways and realize the impacts they can cause on fish and wildlife.

There are ways that you can help contribute to the stewardship of our streams and rivers in the Comox Valley. Here are some ideas that you and your family members can do together in nature. If you are going for a walk near the Tsolum River or on of the tributaries like Dove Creek or Portuguese Creek, keep your eyes open for side-channel pools that are no longer connected to the main flow of the river. These pools may contain young coho or other species of salmon that may perish as water levels drop. With an exceptionally dry March and April, river levels are seasonally lower than what is usual for this time of year. If you see stranded fish in your neighbourhood, whether in a ditch or local stream, please contact us at 250-897-4670.

We have a supply of conifer saplings that we can give to people who would like to plant trees in riparian areas (within 30 metres of any waterway). If you live on or near a river, stream, wetland or ditch, we can either plant the trees for you, or supply you with some to plant yourselves. Our current area of focus is in the Portuguese Creek area so give us a call if you are interested. Riparian trees are important for shade, temperature regulation, bank stabilization, and supply food for aquatic insects.

In these difficult times, it is still possible to get out and enjoy nature in a responsible way. Eyes on the river are always important and we rely on our community for information. Our vision is for neighborhoods near the Tsolum to steward and watch their section of the river; together we can look after the river and the fish and wildlife that live there.

— Submitted by TRRS

Comox Valley

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