UPDATED: Oil spill stains urban miracle in Colquitz Creek

Waterway's health is now in jeopardy, as an estimated 1,000 litres of home heating oil leaked into the river last week.

Chris Bos dunks a large fishing net into Colquitz Creek and pulls it out of the rushing water to reveal a Coho thrashing wildly in the mesh.

“This is a teenager, a Jack” he says, referring to the youthful age of the three-year-old salmon. “He’s protecting the genetics of this river.”

A group of wide-eyed preschoolers listening to his presentation are unfazed by the explanation – their attention is focused on the fish dangling in the net in front of them.

“A salmon!” one girl exclaims excitedly.

Unbeknownst to her and her schoolmates, seeing a good stock of grown salmon in Colquitz Creek is something Bos and two other passionate volunteers have had to work extremely hard to achieve.

At the far end of the short metal footbridge that traverses the creek, a large wooden box partially submerged underwater is the best tool of the trade for the trio of volunteers protecting the natural habitat that thrives in Cuthbert Holmes Park, behind Tillicum Centre.

The box itself is a counting fence. The fish heading back upstream from the ocean via the Gorge waterway are funnelled inside so the volunteers can collect numerical data on the fish returning to spawn.

So far this year 252 fish have turned up in the counting fence. That includes 162 counted last Tuesday alone.

The numbers this year are indicative of a stable habitat.

Last year, only 52 fish returned to spawn, but there have been years where nearly 700 have come back. The volunteers will continue counting fish until mid-December.

“We’re getting one-third adult males return, one-third adult females and one-third Jacks – that’s a good sign for the future population,” Bos says.

“If you don’t know how the health of the creek is, you have no idea if you have to do mitigation (to improve spawning numbers). … Right now you can say it’s a healthy creek.”

Catastrophe strikes Coho-laden creek

But that health is now in jeopardy, as an estimated 1,000 litres of home heating oil leaked into the river last week, killing dozens of fish over the weekend.

“The sight of the salmon at the surface gasping for air and swimming erratically was sickening,” said Dorothy Chambers, who volunteers alongside Bos.

The source of the leak has been tracked to a home on Kenneth Street, said Mike Ippen, Saanich’s director of public works. Crews installed booms at five locations downstream of the spill on Friday to minimize any further environmental impact.

Chambers said the counting fence was covered in oil Sunday, despite assurances from Saanich that steps had been taken to ensure the booms were working.

“The oil was rapidly free-flowing over the band-aids,” she said.

A sixth boom was added Sunday and Ippen is hopeful the worst is over.

“The leak has been found, the (homeowner’s) connection has been isolated from the drainage system, so it could very well be that most of the product is already through the Colquitz. Now it’s dealing with the residue that’s stuck on plants and things like that,” he said.

Adriane Polland, manager of environmental services for Saanich, says the municipality is “a little bit scattered” as to the timeline of events late last week, but says there’s optimism now, as live fish have been spotted between the spill and counting fence.

“It’s our most important watershed, it’s our biggest watershed, and keeping the salmon run going in this system is very important for the salmon, and also as an indicator species of the health of the creek,” she said.

The Ministry of Environment and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are also looking into the oil spill.

Though leaking heating tanks don’t always come with such environmentally dire consequences, Pollard said Saanich needs to improve its messaging to homeowners to ensure they have their tanks inspected and maintained on a more regular basis.

“The public living in town get a chance to see fish in their natural habitat (in this creek) and this provides an understanding of the impact that urbanization has on our water systems, our watersheds,” she said.

Chambers isn’t sure just how badly the salmon spawn will be affected yet.

Oil’s long-term effect unknown

The salmon, in ideal conditions, would continue swimming up Colquitz Creek, well past Tillicum Centre, and will lay between 3,000 and 5,000 eggs in the waterway near Quick’s Bottom Park and the Royal Oak neighbourhood. The adult fish then reach the end of their life cycle and their carcasses provide the creek with nutrients.

Bos, Chambers and fellow volunteer Barrie Goodwin don’t just count the number of fish, they also identify the species and sex, measure each one, and inspect its visual health (looking for such things as bite marks or net and hook marks).

All that information is then provided to the DFO to help with monitoring of the national fish stock.

“What they do for us is huge,” says Tom Rutherford, acting sector head for community involvement and resource restoration with DFO. “We have a mandate to protect fish and fish habitat, and it’s easy for us to protect it if we know the fact that there’s a vibrant run in that system. It gives our regulatory folks a leg up to make sure we protect the habitat that’s there.

“The Colquitz project is a highly urban system. It goes past Tillicum Mall, under the Trans-Canada – it’s not pristine wilderness. These small runs of urban salmon are important to us,” Rutherford adds.

Bos calls their contribution just “one piece of the jigsaw” to ensure enhancements are made – both streamside and oceanside – so the fish have a better chance at survival now and in the future.

If it weren’t for the trio of volunteers who are creekside daily counting the fish, the gravity of the oil spill may not have been known for some time and the environmental impact could have been even more severe.

“The counting fence has been removed so the Coho can try to escape back out to the ocean.  They will die, they will not spawn, but we cannot keep them heading upstream into such a toxic environment,” Chambers said. “We are very worried that it will kill this year’s salmon run.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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