Despite spills, Colquitz coho return above average

The huge, hook-nosed coho, resplendent in spawning scarlet, struggled and flipped his tail as he was lifted from the Colquitz Creek counting fence, while student Tia Endrigo tried to shield herself from the splashes.

"It was kind of fun," said Tia, one of the Tillicum Elementary School students getting a hands-on education on the life cycle of coho salmon Thursday.

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The fish was weighed, measured and plopped back in the water to continue its spawning journey by Chris Bos, lead hand at the counting fence.

"That's a big daddy. Maybe a grandpa," Bos said.

Coho are returning to southern Vancouver Island creeks in greater numbers than usual this year, apparently because of better ocean survival.

That is particularly sweet for the small army of volunteers working to improve habitat and count fish in Colquitz, Craigflower and Swan creeks, where coho are now swimming up from Portage Inlet.

Spills and industrial runoff are ongoing problems in urban creeks and, last year, 1,000 litres of home heating oil leaked into Swan Creek and then made its way into Colquitz Creek, killing coho and fouling banks and vegetation.

That was followed in February by another spill of 634 litres into Colquitz Creek.

This year's returns indicate the watershed is clean, but it is not yet known what effect the spills had on fertilized eggs or young salmon leaving for the ocean in the spring. Coho return to spawn when they are two or three years old.

"We seem to have dodged a bullet, but only time will tell," Bos said.

The spills had one positive effect - they raised awareness and brought like-minded people together to try to restore habitat in Swan Creek and the larger Colquitz watershed, said Ian Bruce, Peninsula Streams Society executive co-ordinator.

A meeting last month to look at setting up a stewardship group drew 50 people, and another meeting is planned for next week.

Meanwhile, volunteer steward Dorothy Chambers and Bos are intent on educating young people about the need to protect creeks for the sake of wildlife.

"The neatest part is handling the dead fish," Chambers said, trying to convince a student to feel the coho's teeth.

"It is pretty cool," said Emily Mudrak, as she turned over an orange salmon egg in her hand.

When coho arrive in Portage Inlet, they can go up Colquitz or Craigflower creeks. So far this year, Craigflower is more popular.

"The trap was so full this morning we couldn't get the net in," said Bruce Bevan, who helps with the Craigflower counting fence.

So far, 450 coho have gone through the counting fence.

"Last year, we had 58 at this time," Bevan said.

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