The Mamquam channels, situated next to the Mamquam River, usually provide safe habitat for coho fry, but turned deadly last week as water dried up in the channels, trapping thousands of fry.
The Squamish Streamkeepers received an email about the dire situation last Tuesday (Aug. 28) and member John Buchanan was the first on the scene. Hiking into the area in the wee hours of Wednesday (Aug. 29), he returned a few hours later with a handmade net he created and a reporter in tow.
As we trekked into the area, carrying between us a cooler containing buckets and nets for the rescue mission, he explained that the phenomenon is not new and has been occurring for a number of years.
When we reached the spawning channels, it was evident that the fish needed help. Standing on the pedestrian bridge, we could see that mere puddles of water remained where only a few days before water covered the entire stream bed.
“Probably in this little bit of water that you are looking at right now,” says Buchanan as we crouch next to one of the pools containing roughly 2.5 centimetres of water, “believe it or not there’s maybe 500 fish in there right now, and they’re all consuming oxygen.
“So we’re going to move as many as we can today because that gives the ones in there a fighting chance because the more [fish] you move, the less the oxygen is getting depleted.”
Then it was time to take action. Armed with a small net while Buchanan used his larger makeshift net, I attempted to “herd” the fish towards him, as he swept his net across the water. The fry are extremely adept at camouflaging themselves, Buchanan said. The pool was clear after our first try, when the critters virtually disappeared in among the rocks.
We managed to capture 10 coho fry and although it was not many, I felt a sense of satisfaction as we released them to freedom in the adjacent channel.
Buchanan returned later that day with minnow traps which he baited and placed in the pools, making the tally of rescued fish that day rise to 130.
A few days later, Jack Cooley, Jonn Matsen, Brad Ray, John Gothard and Don Lawrence of the Squamish Streamkeepers put in more than 40 hours collecting thousands of coho fry stranded in other shallow pools of water from the South Mamquam channel.
Cooley said a potential cause for the annual stranding could be the low flow of the Mamquam River.
Buchanan added that he believes there is another problem to address.
“It’s hard to say definitively,” he said, “but there’s the golf course that pulls groundwater out to water their greens.”
He pointed out that as the weather gets hotter, and it hasn’t rained for a while, the demand increases for the Squamish Valley Golf Club to pull water and he says he’s sure that has an effect.
Keith Strom, Squamish Valley Golf Club superintendent, disagreed.
He said that when the spawning channels were constructed in the early 1980s, Bob Brown from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was in charge of the project and “he maintained that even from Day 1 that our pond is independent of those channels, and was recharged via an aquifer in the area.”
“So when we’re actually pumping, we’re not affecting the channels at all.”
Strom said golf course officials have looked into the situation numerous times.
“This comes up from time to time with the Streamkeepers, and justifiably so — they are concerned about the fish, as we are, and we’re independent of it.”
Buchanan said the Mamquam channels are, after all, manmade, “so it could be a design flaw too; there could be a need to bring a machine in there and do some digging to dig some of those channels down a bit deeper.”
The Mamquam channels have proven to be the most productive coho habitat on the Mamquam River.
Past studies have shown it to produce in excess of 25,000 coho smolts annually.
“When we salvage fry, we are simply increasing their productively to an even higher level by this effort. We will continue to look at habitat development options to reduce the loss of fry from stranding,” DFO biologist Matt Foy wrote in an email.