Environment
Features

Oak Bay has 28,000 new residents: Bowker Creek’s chum salmon eggs

Meet the people leading the Bowker Creek Salmon resurgence

By Emily Fagan
February 4, 2022
Environment
Features

Oak Bay has 28,000 new residents: Bowker Creek’s chum salmon eggs

Meet the people leading the Bowker Creek Salmon resurgence

By Emily Fagan
Feb 4, 2022
Photo: Brandon Williamson (Submitted)
Photo: Brandon Williamson (Submitted)
Environment
Features

Oak Bay has 28,000 new residents: Bowker Creek’s chum salmon eggs

Meet the people leading the Bowker Creek Salmon resurgence

By Emily Fagan
February 4, 2022
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Oak Bay has 28,000 new residents: Bowker Creek’s chum salmon eggs
Photo: Brandon Williamson (Submitted)

Last month, Oak Bay welcomed a new condo—and it’s already underwater. Submerged under a layer of gravel and water in the bed of Bowker Creek, the pink eggs of 28,000 chum salmon are awaiting the spring in their new “hatchery condo”  built by a team of local volunteers.

As a surrogate salmon nest, the condo imitates the ideal conditions for the eggs to incubate and ultimately hatch. Thousands of tiny pink eggs rest in a porous tray buried beneath the gravel, with enough space for water to flow through and oxygenate them. 

“Our hope is that by transforming the creek back into a salmon spawning ground, we can encourage residents and local governments to recognize Bowker Creek as more than just a piece of stormwater infrastructure, but actually as a diverse ecosystem in our community,” said Brandon Williamson, a volunteer with the Friends of Bowker Creek advocacy organization.

This project is the culmination of more than a decade of habitat restoration work by the Friends of Bowker Creek. Decades of pollution and garbage dumped in the creek since the early 20th century had long created an inhospitable environment to the salmon that previously thrived in it for thousands of years—and now, local volunteers hope to make this a place chum salmon can once again call home.

“Within the last two or three years, [we] started to say, ‘Wow, I wonder if this stream might be ready to have salmon returned to it,’” Gerald Harris, volunteer director of the Friends of Bowker Creek, told Capital Daily.

Following Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s guidance for water quality surveys, the Friends of Bowker Creek formed a streamkeepers group and began conducting extensive habitat surveys and water quality testing to determine what region of the creek, if any, might be suited to support the reintroduction of salmon. Finally, they found it in a stretch of the creek close to the ocean, next to Firefighter's Park. An area that had once been the growing municipality of Oak Bay’s garbage dump was now, thanks to their restoration work, ready to sustain life.

Photo: Brandon Williamson (Submitted)

This isn’t the first time locals have reintroduced salmon populations to streams: other teams at Mount Douglas Creek and the Colquitz River in Saanich found success with a similar habitat revitalization model.

At first, the Friends of Bowker Creek applied to introduce chum salmon fry—baby fish just old enough to emerge from their gravel-covered yolk sacs. But Harris was advised to instead introduce salmon eggs, which incubate in the gravel for a few weeks before hatching and develop a keener sense of their home stream.

“Now that these eggs are in the water, they're imprinting on this ecosystem,” said Kyle Armstrong, restoration coordinator for the Peninsula Streams Society. 

“As adults, [when] they come back, they'll have that added advantage of being able to find this area a little more readily.”

Armstrong and his organization have been working alongside the Friends of Bowker Creek to help them navigate the regulations around this project and ensure it has the funding and resources to succeed. He says the groups decided on reintroducing the chum species of salmon because they move on to the ocean early in their life cycles, which he said works well for the section of Bowker Creek in which  the egg condo is located.

That newly restored strip of stream, however, was briefly under threat this winter when floodwaters submerged much of the ravine around Bowker Creek. Williamson said the large boulders and gravel volunteers had prepared to create spawning grounds were disturbed and washed downstream. But thanks to the hard work of volunteers, the spawning habitat was restored in time for the salmon eggs’ move-in day.

The winter storms also took a toll on the local salmon population, including the 30,000 eggs that Friends of Bowker Creek planned to source from Goldstream Hatchery.

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“There were significant losses to both the salmon that were returning and the eggs that were in the stream,” Williamson said. “There were actually fears for a while that we weren't even going to be able to put any eggs in this year.”

However, the team was relieved when the hatchery was still able to provide 28,000 eggs for the restoration project.

Out of the thousands of eggs currently in Bowker Creek, volunteers aren’t sure how many mature salmon they might see return. 

“In nature, you're looking at 1-2% of those [salmon] to come back,” said Armstrong. “In an urban environment, that would be a really high success rate for a system like this.”

It will take three to four years before volunteers will see if the salmon will come back to lay eggs of their own in Bowker Creek. With such poor odds, Williamson feels any number of salmon returning would be a success.

“It could be 10, it could be 100,” he said. “But we'd be happy with any.”

In the long term, Friends of Bowker Creek hope to also bring back coho salmon to the creek. But to get there, they’ll need continued, year-round work to bring the stream back to a more habitable condition. 

“We’ve still got a ways to go in getting this stream healthy,” Harris said.

That work could include trying to improve the water quality at more parts of the stream, making it possible for salmon to make use of more of the stream bed for laying eggs.

But so far, Harris has seen a lot of help in making this happen. The salmon restoration project has brought volunteers from across generations to dedicate their time to the stream in a way that Harris never witnessed before. It’s attracted community members as young as 12 years old, which fills him with hope that the project will have longevity. 

“Among this number now, there are people who will be advocates for the creek for many years to come,” Harris said.

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