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Squamish Streamkeepers keeping on, 20 years later and counting

What do local volunteers do and how you can get involved.

When The Chief sat down with Jack Cooley and fellow Streamkeeper Patrick MacNamara, the organization had just finished its final yearly tally of fish in local streams.

One of the final count highlights was that in 2020-21, Stawamus Creek saw a record 144 coho.

"This whole society was created 20 years ago or more to revive the coho population. Their population has been struggling all along, until this year, where, all of a sudden, to our great surprise, in Stawamus — those big numbers," said MacNamara, adding that time will tell if the record is a fluke or if the numbers will stay healthy.

The non-profit Squamish Streamkeepers Society consists of a core group of 15 volunteers, but that number bloats for certain projects, according to Cooley, who refers to himself as the "salmon boss, treasurer, meeting boss and email communicator.” 

The group is open to everyone and doesn't charge a membership fee. 

They also steer — mostly — clear of politics. (Though don’t ask Cooley his opinion on fish farms or that neutral tone will drop.)

"That way it is open, if you want to come and work a little with us," said MacNamara, who was sent by his wife to a Streamkeepers orientation meeting at the library 20 years ago and became hooked.

Cooley joined in 2003.

Fresh blood welcome

The men acknowledge they aren't getting any younger and while they have some youthful volunteers, more will keep the group on track for generations to come.

"We can use fresh blood," said Cooley, who says he fished as a little boy, but lost his passion for it several years ago during a pink salmon run.

"I pulled in about five — I let them go — but I thought to myself, 'I am not doing these fish any favours. I am really am not."

That was the last time he fished.

"I get my 'thrill' out of walking to the places where the fish spawn... and counting them," he said.

The group welcomes new volunteers with a passion for protecting fish — especially in the summer when more folks are needing to rescue fish from dry streams.

The organization started within the Squamish River Watershed Society in 2000, then became an independent Society with charity status in 2006.

"We monitor the smaller salmon streams, not the main-stems, and spawning channels from Furry Creek in the south to 29.5 Mile Creek in the upper Squamish Valley in the north plus Swift Creek in Paradise Valley. Before fall salmon spawning time, we ensure that obstacles — [human]-made, beaver-made, and otherwise — are

removed. During spawning season, using 15 or so volunteers, we count the returning chum, coho, and pinks. The counts are emailed to our 180 email group members usually every week," Cooley told The Chief.

In February, the total stream counts are compiled and published to email members, including a few DFO personnel, Cooley said, referencing the recent tally.

Critical role

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) depends on the Streamkeepers' boots on the ground, a spokesperson told The Chief, especially when it comes to the Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP).

"The SEP provides annual funding support to assist the Squamish Streamkeepers in carrying out important work including salmon stock assessment, public stewardship and habitat restoration/enhancement within Squamish area streams, specifically: monitoring of spawning and rearing habitats; conducting salmon fry salvage; implementing habitat restoration to improve juvenile salmon rearing conditions; conducting adult enumeration for coho and chum salmon, and performing herring habitat restoration and enhancement within the Howe Sound area," the spokesperson said.

"The Squamish Streamkeepers are an important volunteer society and representative of many stewardship groups across the Pacific Region who are committed and passionate about improving ecosystem health in their local watersheds."

DFO contributed $4,000 to the Squamish Streamkeepers this fiscal year.

Edith Tobe, executive director and project manager with the Squamish River Watershed Society said her group has a good working relationship with the Streamkeepers, too.

"They are an independent organization," she said. "I always refer to them as my volunteer base because there are so many enthusiastic volunteers, and we rely heavily on them for our programs like what we run with our education outreach program," she said, adding the SRWS focusess on restoration, while the Streamkeepers focus on maintaining the watercourses, counting fish and keeping the courses clean.

Hearts and minds

The Streamkeepers assist Rhonda O'Grady, the SRWS education director, with elementary students' outdoor education programs.

They also have the Adventure Centre distribute their brochure and staff display tables during Earth Day and Rivers Day pre-pandemic.

 Encouraging herring

 Mayor Karen Elliott told The Chief she is grateful for the group’s work.

"From their annual salmon spawning counts in our streams and channels to their monitoring of our salmon bearing waters to ensure safe passage for adult spawners and prevent juvenile stranding in drying streams, they play an important role in conserving wild pacific salmon in our region. They have also been instrumental in habitat restoration for pacific herring, a cornerstone of the marine food web and a foundation for marine life diversity."

Members of the group work to improve the number of herring in local waters and further afield at False Creek and, more recently, at Coal Harbour.

"There used to be a huge herring population right off Deadman Island, and thanks to what human beings have done, there is no more. So we are trying to reconstitute the historical herring population," said MacNamara.

The herring volunteers drop weighted nylon nets that replace the eelgrass herring used to spawn on.

"They take onto that by the millions," MacNamara said.

 Tips for residents

The Streamkeepers remind locals to keep pets and people out of Squamish creeks to protect the fish.

The group is going to put up a net fence around West Meighen creek in Coho Park to prevent those with four paws or two feet from stomping through the creek where the fish are spawning.  

"The water is very shallow in there, so it is easy to walk across so kids may go in with their little boots, but at the time when they spawn, that hurts the fish," MacNamara said.

Coho stay in the stream where they are born for 18 months or so. Thus, all year long, it is not best not to trample through creeks, MacNamara added.

He said that with many new people arriving in Squamish, they also may not be aware of pink salmon's cyclical nature.

"This year, starting in mid-August, we are looking for the start of the pink salmon coming back — which come only every second year," he said, adding the run lasts about six weeks.

In 2013 there was a huge run of pink salmon.

The last run in 2019, was OK, but not great, the men said.

For more on the organization, go to the Squamish Streamkeepers.