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Squamish streamkeepers bringing the herring back



Like the wind and the water, herring were once abundant in Squamish. If you had the time and inclination, they say, you could scoop them with a cup of your hand.

The herring had been coming to Squamish waters to eat Neoclanus Plumchrus, a small crustacean found in most fresh water sources. The Neoclanus Plumchrus, in turn, fed on the green plants that start to grow under the water during the spring.

This natural chain had another crucial link: the herring is fed upon by sea mammals and fish like cod and salmon, the kind of fish that are now fighting for survival.

But a link was broken in the mid-60s when the north end of Howe Sound was industrialized. A chemical plant and saw mill brought hundreds of much-needed jobs into town. But the preservatives and chemicals from the plants took their toll on herring.

Dr. John Matsen and other members of the Squamish Streamkeepers witnessed the disappearance of the once-abundant herring.

"When the mills and other industry opened here in the mid-60s, Fisheries and Oceans research suggests that 500,000 herring died the very next day," Matsen said.

With no herring runs, it was assumed that the herring had moved somewhere else to spawn.

In 2005 a culvert was put under a dike to pump fresh water into Blind Channel. The hope was the fresh water would clean up the channel and allow herring to return.

But a chance discovery changed the entire strategy of the streamkeepers. Patrick MacNamara saw hundreds of dead eggs on the creosote pilings at the east dock on the Squamish Terminals. The herring had found a quiet place to lay their eggs but the creosote pilings were killing the eggs by the millions.

"There were 170 pilings and each had hundreds and thousands of dead eggs on them." Matsen said.

With funding from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the streamkeepers began wrapping the pilings with various materials to see what might protect the numerous, but delicate eggs from creosote damage.

After trying plastic wrapping the streamkeepers shifted to using weed control materials. Quickly, there were millions of herring hatching from the eggs. There have been four fresh spawns this year alone, which means a wealth of herring in the Howe Sound.

"There are no predators here and this artificial herring area is working quite well. We are getting the herring back," Matsen said.

The return of the herring, Matsen added, bodes well in getting salmon and other sea mammals back in the waters. The whale and the dolphins that were in Howe Sound a few months ago suggest are evidence of this.

"An improved salmon run means everyone benefits, from bears to eagles to human beings," said Matsen.

It completes the cycle and makes the ecosystem that much more healthy.

"When you are surrounded by bounty, doesn't it make you feel good? I mean this is going to be a big party for everyone."