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After a century, chum salmon return to Bowker Creek

Egg boxes were buried in gravel in the creek
Gerald Harris of the Friends of Bowker Creek captured this image of chum salmon fry emerging from the gravel in Bowker Creek, where the urban waterway spills into the Salish Sea near Oak Bay Marina. GERALD HARRIS

Volunteers working to restore Bowker Creek are celebrating the return of salmon to the urban waterway after more than a century.

Small chum fry emerged from their egg boxes, buried in gravel, last week near Monteith Street, where Bowker Creek spills into the Salish Sea near Oak Bay Marina.

The eggs boxes were stocked with 28,000 eggs from the ­Goldstream Hatchery in ­January after hundreds of volunteers from the Friends of Bowker Creek Society and Peninsula Streams Society repaired the hatching areas and banks.

“We’re absolutely delighted,” said Gerald Harris, Friends of Bowker Creek director and a longtime fisheries consultant.

“These small fry are in the Salish Sea now starting their long journey, and it will be wonderful to see some of them return and begin the cycle again.”

How many fry actually hatched won’t be determined until the two plastic egg boxes are pulled from the deep gravel in a few weeks, and how many spawning chum will return after up to three years in the open ocean is anyone’s guess.

But the salmon cycle is underway, which will eventually improve the overall health of the creek, said Harris.

“I think we’d be over the moon if we get 30 back, really happy if we got 20 and still ­feeling good at 10,” Harris said. “However long it takes to establish the run again I don’t know, but even now these fry are helping make the stream healthy again.”

Volunteer Val Aloian, who had been monitoring flows and taking water temperatures in the nest area since January, was elated when she noticed about 100 fry in the creek on the ­morning of March 30.

“These chum fry usually only come out at night and then take off,” she said. “It was just thrilling to see.”

Aloian said there has been tremendous support from volunteers and the public all over Oak Bay, Saanich and Victoria, where the creek flows.

About 60 per cent of Bowker Creek is underground and ­flowing through culverts, ­including under the parking lot at Hillside shopping centre, through Firefighter’s Park in Oak Bay and under other urban neighbourhoods.

The last chum salmon were documented around Royal Jubilee Hospital in 1914, which, Harris said, coincided with the building of the culvert system under Firefighter’s Park. That would likely be the limit of potential future salmon runs.

The current salmon-rearing area extends about three blocks from the mouth of the creek.

Bowker Creek travels eight kilometres from its spring-fed source on the University of ­Victoria campus.

The creek, named for John Sylvester Bowker, an ­American who settled in the area in the 1860s, once supported coho salmon and cutthroat trout. First Nations middens of camp debris along its route have been dated back 2,500 years.

Harris said the egg boxes will be restocked in January and again in 2024, coinciding with the first possible returns.

He said the Friends of Bowker Creek remain concerned about high levels of sediment in the creek, particularly near the waterway mouth and hatching area, blaming it on continued development and erosion along the stream banks.

Heavy rains in November saw most of the creek’s culvert ­systems at capacity, he said.

“I was quite stressed that these little eggs would be smothered by the sediment, which can happen,” said Harris. “We won’t know until we get the [egg] boxes out later this month to see what kind of mortality may be inside.

“But we are very aware that we need to be reducing the amount of sediment coming down.”

For now, the chum fry will spend time growing along Oak Bay’s shores in eelgrasses, a key hiding habitat for fry.