Temporary sandbagging for kokanee access at the mouth of Mill Creek in Harrop also improves human play habitat. Photo submitted

COLUMN: Making the effort

Columnist Eileen Delehanty Pearkes describes a community effort to restore and protect habitat

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

A small group of intrepid volunteers toting shovels, hand-saws and clippers approached Mill (Harrop) Creek on a sunny August day. With B.C. ministry permits in hand that authorized this maintenance project, they were intent on improving a West Arm creek’s access and habitat for spawning kokanee. I tagged along, learning more about the great potential that exists to provide more space for our region’s iconic fresh-water salmon.

I’ve written here before about the shore-spawning kokanee, and I have no doubt from reader response that people care a lot. As a result of public concern about those shore-spawners, FortisBC has provided additional funding to study the impact of reservoir levels on the nests where these fish lay their eggs. The West Arm’s creek spawners are another type of fish, and the kokanee in Kootenay Lake, yet another. The Kootenay Lake fishery collapsed completely around 2014-15, for reasons that are still unclear. While the West Arm and Lake stocks are not scientifically connected, the collapse of the lake fishery has for many been a general call from the wild to do more.

The August 2019 project on Mill Creek was a short-term fix for a major project being discussed by fisheries officials for the near future. Volunteers removed overgrown willow and debris that were choking out the free flow of water at the mouth. They filled and placed dozens of sandbags, arranging them in a few key places to increase water flow and create settling areas where fish could spawn. In one morning, half a dozen men made the creek more hospitable to the fish.

The heavily managed channel at Kokanee Creek Park is an effort to assist spawning numbers in general. It’s working, but has limits. We need to continue to pay more attention to other creeks. Every year, a modest number of spawners arrive against odds to spawn at Duhamel, Lasca, Sitkum and other creeks, including Mill. These fish have to work harder than the fish in the intensively managed channel. They may be tougher and more resilient as a result.

Back in the early 2000s, I was involved with several other Nelson residents in an effort to restore the mouth of Cottonwood Creek to wild spawning kokanee. Historically, Nelson’s major creek had a prosperous run. Several factors ended that. Overfishing by early settlers; concrete channelizing by CPR after the 1948 flood; the operations of Libby Dam (1973); and the dumping of city storm water/winter road sands into the creek gradually destroyed kokanee habitat.

The Cottonwood restoration idea was widely and enthusiastically supported at the time, thanks to the involvement of Selkirk College and a key grant to the city from the BC Gas Tax Fund. Filters to settle out road sands before they entered the creek were installed. Meetings began with CP Rail and other interested parties. And then, with changes in city priorities, the project died out.

Having watched the dedicated Harrop volunteers work on Mill Creek, I have no doubt that paying attention to Cottonwood Creek can enrich the city’s cultural life. In September, when the spawners returned to Mill Creek, I walked almost daily along the water, watching. Males vied for the chosen females, pushing and even biting each other. If a female registered my shadow, she darted away from her gravel nest to seek cover. Ravens, osprey and seagulls combed the sky, positioning themselves for the feast once the fish had spawned and died. Bears appeared to feast.

It feels right to know that my own home can also be a habitat to wild creatures. This beautiful place where we live is not just for human beings. Making the effort to restore and protect habitat for others is always worthwhile.

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