Photo Credit: ComoxValley.News staff

How Devoted Volunteers and a Weird Jawless Fish Helped Save One of the Most Important Wild Salmon Streams on VanIsle

Protecting the threatened Lamprey could also protect salmon

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A tiny Comox Valley stream could hold the key to salmon survival on Vancouver Island’s east coast
Morrison Creek lamprey Credit: Jim Palmer

Morrison Creek is one of the most productive salmon streams on east Vancouver Island, and its steady and consistent supply of cool spring-fed water flows through the heart of the Comox Valley.

Fish love the cool water. Consequently, all salmon species except sockeye spawn in Morrison’s gravel beds.

But the stream has another, much stranger resident – the Morrison Creek lamprey.

Lampreys are ancient and weird-looking. They are scaleless, eel-like, jawless fish with circular-shaped mouths that looks like a suction cup. They are about as long as a pencil. Scientists believe lampreys have been around for a long time, roughly 300 million years old.

The Morrison Creek lamprey is also very rare. It’s found only in this one local stream.

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Although its scarcity is bad for the Morrison Creek lamprey, it’s good for the survival of local salmon.

Why?

Because the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has listed the species as “endangered.”

The endangered listing creates pressure to protect Morrison Creek, the Morrison Creek lamprey’s home, and the home to many salmon.

Wild Salmon in Distress

That is important because Pacific salmon are at a critical point. The waters where they live are changing fast. Too fast!

Drought and heat waves are spiking local water temperatures, and rivers and streams are drying up.

Things are not looking good in most places, even on VanIsle.

But these distressing trends have set the stage to make our local watershed a small but welcome success story.

Morrison Creek is Unique

Lamprey in Morrison Creek Watershed
Credit: Government of Canada

The lamprey’s COSEWICS listing, combined with the hard work of devoted local volunteers, helped safeguard the cool, consistent flows of Morrison Creek, giving local salmon a fighting chance.

Morrison Creek rises in a spider’s web of tiny spring-fed trickles that flow from northwest of Comox Lake. It meanders for less than 20 km through the Valley. While the flow and temperature of many streams vary with the seasons, Morrison’s cool spring-fed flows are steady and consistent.

It’s just one of the thousands of Vancouver Island streams that contributed to the genetic diversity of salmon over thousands of years. But protecting Morrison is more now important than it has ever been.

“It’s all about the headwaters,” local volunteer Jim Palmer told ComoxValley.News.

Committed Volunteers

Palmer and his partner Jan Gemmell know Morrison Creek like their own backyard. So for two decades, they have been the driving force behind the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers. These volunteer Streamkeepers have devoted countless hours rehabbing the stream, counting fish, planting trees and shrubs along the streambank, and fundraising.  

In 2019, Palmer and Gemmell led an effort to buy 22 hectares of land in the stream’s headwaters. The Pacific Salmon Foundation, Habitat Conservation Trust and the Sitka Foundation were among the many groups they helped organize to raise the more than $800,000 required to close the deal.

The Comox Valley Land Trust (CVLT) and the Comox Valley Regional District now own the land surrounding the headwaters; CVLT holds a covenant preventing any future development of the land.

Palmer considers headwaters protection one of the most important pieces of the conservation puzzle for Morrison Creek. Tim Ennis, executive director of the CVLT, agrees.

“Morrison Creek has a climate-proof hydrologic system that is part of the reason why it is the most important wild salmon spawning stream of its size anywhere on the east side of Vancouver Island,” Ennis says.  

The salmon of Morrison Creek are lucky to have the Streamkeepers working to defend their stream. They are also lucky to share their home with the endangered Lamprey.

But the iconic salmon of Vancouver Island shouldn’t have to rely on luck – or volunteers – for their survival. Instead, our elected representatives in Ottawa and Victoria need to act fast and aggressively to safeguard the waters they need to survive.

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