Andrew McNaughton and others work on restoration of Departure Creek on Tuesday. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)

Nanaimo creek restoration meant to make habitat more fish-friendly

Streamkeepers, Departure Bay neighbours, City of Nanaimo, NALT and others partner on project

Work is underway to make Departure Creek a more inviting place for fish to come and spend some of their life cycle.

Streamkeepers, the neighbourhood association, the city and other partners are working this week to restore a section of the creek at Woodstream Park. A project two years ago to create a side channel for salmon wasn’t wholly successful, and the creek was also damaged by high flows last winter.

So this time of year, with water levels low, was the right time to try to make repairs and realignments. Jean-Michel Hanssens, a member of the Departure Creek Streamkeepers and the Departure Bay Neighbourhood Association, said the creek is one of the only ones left in Nanaimo that can support rearing coho. It’s also home to pink salmon and cutthroat trout.

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The side channel, Hanssens explained, allows “the little guys” to get out of the current during the winter.

“The water level comes way up and we get those big rain events and drainage from storm drains that empty into the creek. This becomes a torrent, so the fish get battered up,” he said. “And if they don’t have a place where they can seek refuge, their productivity goes way down because the fish will get knocked down into the ocean.”

The work underway now will raise an area of the creek bed so that the water level will be high enough to back-fill the side channel. The creek bed is also being banked below the channel to try to keep the water moving quickly enough to prevent build-up of a “sand bar” that would obstruct access to the side channel.

“You learn as you go and you realize that well, we’re going to have to make some adjustments,” said Rob Lawrance, the City of Nanaimo’s environmental planner. “They had to find some new funds and the city was available to help with the machine and some of the support work.”

The project needed approval from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, funding was provided by the neighbourhood association and Nanaimo and Area Land Trust, and Snuneymuxw First Nation, Milner Group and others are also helping.

“This kind of work, to be successful, you need those kinds of partnerships. You can’d do these things in isolation,” Lawrance said. “You need First Nations buy-in, you need local community involved. This is a great example of that kind of co-operation in action.”

Hanssens said Streamkeepers have a permit from DFO to trap fish in the spring, and they measure, weigh and release the young coho to track the creek’s productivity. He said rough estimates are that a female coho might deposit 2,500 eggs – 10 per cent will hatch, 10 per cent of those will go to the ocean as smolt and 10 per cent of those will come back as adult fish. Along the way heron, otters and even cutthroat will feed on coho.

“A tremendous amount of stuff goes on in order for one fish to come back,” Hanssens said. “He’s got to survive. It’s a cycle.”

So sustainability efforts of humans who care about the creek and its inhabitants help.

“This is just another small project in the long-term vision to improve the fish habitat along this creek,” said Claudia Boyce, an executive with the neighbourhood association.

She pointed out a few areas where planting has been done to stabilize the banks of the creek, and said there has also been invasive species removal. There’s been a long history of Departure Bay residents caring for the creek, which she called an important feature of the neighbourhood.

“It’s quite a beautiful spot,” Boyce said. “It takes you away from the hustle and bustle and all the traffic … It’s kind of a little, hidden oasis from all the concrete and built environment that we live in.”

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