Colquitz Creek salmon run a fine kettle of fish

Despite all the threats it faces, Colquitz Creek in Saanich is thriving as a home for salmon.

Colquitz is an urban stream under tremendous pressure from homes along its bank, storm drains that empty into it and runoff from farming and light industry.

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It weathered a number of spills in 2010-11, when some fish died but many others survived.

On one day last week, volunteers counted 449 coho and two cutthroat trout — more than the entire run last year.

“This morning we’ve had nine small ones, one large male and three large females which were 10 to 14 pounds,” said Chris Bos as a small salmon flipped its tail, heading upstream from the fence.

Bos and about a dozen volunteers have been counting the fish as they pause at a metal fence that blocks the river where it meanders near Tillicum Mall. Bos and the helpers scoop the fish in nets and lift them clear of the fence so they can continue upstream.

Counting fish serves as a measurement of the river’s viability, Bos said.

“The count was originally for conservation and understanding of how healthy the watershed was,” he said.

The salmon start to spawn a short distance upstream from the fence, in gravel beneath the overhanging bushes of the riverbank. Some go farther upstream and spawn in the tributary Swan Creek.

It’s still early for the coho to return to streams and creeks on the Saanich Peninsula, said Ian Bruce, executive director for Peninsula Streams Society.

“We had a few fish back to Reay Creek, a few coho, but we’re expecting more. I expect a fairly good run this year, based on what everybody else is getting,” Bruce said.

Strong numbers mean the salmon are producing lots of smolts and those fish are enjoying good conditions when they get to sea, he said.

“One year, 15 years ago, coho struggling back past Sooke were thin and emaciated. They looked like sick fish — they were starving, essentially.

“If they come back and in good numbers and fat, then their grazing conditions were good.”

This appears to be an off year for Craigflower Creek, and the numbers so far are nowhere close to the 1,300 salmon that came upstream last year.

Last weekend, when hordes of salmon went up Colquitz, only seven fish were at the counting fence at Craigflower.

Perhaps the waterfalls at the river mouth discouraged the salmon or they got caught up with the huge return at Colquitz Creek, said Bruce Bevan of the Esquimalt Anglers Association, the group that oversees the salmon survey at Craigflower Creek.

Then again, Bevan speculates, last year’s good run at Craigflower Creek might have been because the spills at Colquitz sent those fish elsewhere.

A big group of fish might still be waiting just offshore, Bevan suggested.

“We’ll see what happens in the next week. We’ll be getting some higher tides in the ocean so that usually encourages them to come up.”

Looking after salmon in streams is rewarding, Bevan said.

“You treat them as your own babies — you really take care of them.”

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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