Little Creek in a Big City

Story by Mark Hume

In the big scheme of things on the Pacific Coast it may be that Spanish Bank Creek is meaningless. Then again, this little stream that trickles down out of housing developments, crosses under busy roads and plunges through a wild ravine before flowing into the harbour of a big city, might mean everything.

For if a creek that is so small you can step across it and so shallow you can safely negotiate its rapids in rubber boots can grow salmon – and stir human hearts – then surely there is still hope in this world for fish.

By about 1920 the salmon run in Spanish Bank Creek was done. Loggers had moved through, trashing the ravine. And the stream became impassable when its mouth became blocked by sand, silt and rubble.

Fast forward to the 1990’s, when the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada was encouraging volunteers to work on salmon restoration projects. That’s when Ron Gruber, and some of his neighbors in Vancouver’s West Point Grey area, got involved.

“About 13 years ago a guy knocked on my door and said ‘We’re working to restore Spanish Bank Creek. . .I was told you might be interested in helping with something like that,” said Mr. Gruber, a wood carver who is famous for his lifelike duck decoys and salmon made from cedar.

“I said, ‘Ok, yeah, I might like to do that.”

Spanish Bank Creek was only a few blocks from his home, and so Mr. Gruber went to a few meetings that involved DFO, the province of British Columbia, the City of Vancouver and Nick Page, of Raincoast Applied Ecology, an environmental consultant who had come up with a restoration plan.

Mr. Page figured with a little bit of money and some hard work, the stream mouth could be opened up and some holding water built upstream.

DFO had access to salmon eggs. So the idea was simple enough. Fix the habitat. Add eggs – and hope.

Ever since then Mr. Gruber and other members of the Spanish Bank Creek Streamkeepers, have been working on improving the stream habitat.

As he worked his way up the small creek one winter day, looking for spawning redds, Mr. Gruber pointed out the rocks that had been moved to create riffles, the debris that had been dragged out to keep the stream passable, and the small diversion introduced to direct the water away from a clay bank that was pouring silt into the water.

As it snakes through the willow thickets, chattering through runs and splashing over boulders and deadfalls, Spanish Bank Creek seems a magical place. Here and there tiny coho dart for cover.

“Most people don’t believe me when I tell them salmon spawn here,” said Mr. Gruber, meaning here, in the heart of one of Canada’s largest cities.

“But there’s the proof,” he said, pointing to a clean patch of gravel just a few metres upstream from a culvert under Northwest Marine Drive. “A pair of chum salmon dug a redd [or spawning nest] right there just a few weeks ago. Their eggs are buried there and they will be hatching in the spring.

In his scrap book he has pictures of every salmon that has spawned in the stream in recent years. One year about 60 chum came back.

Some years there have only been a handful of coho or chum. But the salmon are certainly back. They first returned in November 2000, when a few coho showed up. It was the first spawning run in 80 years.

They have come back every year since.

In the spring, school kids come to the stream to release chum fry they have raised from the egg stage in class room aquariums. But wild salmon are self-sustaining in Spanish Bank Creek now, and Mr. Gruber says they are cutting back on the number of hatchery fish released.

“We don’t want to crowd out the wild fish, and they seem to be doing pretty good right now,”  said Mr. Gruber.

At one point the creek tumbles down a steep cataract.

“We never used to see fish go above that barrier,” said Mr. Gruber.  But a few years ago he saw a fish splashing at the base of the waterfall, then plunging upstream. He scrambled up there the next spring to look around, and found some coho fry. This winter he found eggs rolling along the bottom above the impassable waterfall.

“Coho are the athletes of the salmon world,” he said. “What they can do is amazing. I’ve seen them driving up the shallows, water spraying everywhere…I’ve seen them turn on their sides to slide under logs are totally blocking the way. If there’s a way, they will get there.”

And if they can get there in Spanish Bank Creek, they can get there in a lot of places. It’s worth keeping in mind, for if a damaged little stream like this can be restored, then others can too.

Imagine 1,000 creeks like this, each putting out 100 salmon. Maybe that’s how the fight to save wild salmon can be won. One stream at a time.