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Massive herring spawns are once again happening in Britannia Creek and Howe Sound, which was toxic to aquatic life until a few years ago.

Brian Thompson/Brian Thompson

For the first time in a century, salmon have returned to Britannia Creek and they are now building spawning beds in a stream that until a few years ago was toxic to all aquatic life.

In a world awash with gloomy stories about the environment, the revival of Britannia Creek and Howe Sound into which it flows, is a shining example of what can happen when enough people care and government acts. Sightings of grey whales, killer whales and schools of hundreds of white-sided dolphins are now being made regularly in the Sound, where massive herring spawns are once again occurring.

"We are seeing the revitalization of an entire ecosystem. It is really uplifting," said John Buchanan, a Squamish conservationist who voluntarily walks streams in the area to help count spawning salmon.

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For years, he has stopped at the small stream at Britannia Beach, which runs under the Sea-to-Sky Highway just south of Squamish, about halfway between Vancouver and Whistler.

"Checking on Britannia is part of my routine. But when I stopped there last week, I didn't expect to see anything. I never do," said Mr. Buchanan. "I walked up to the bank, looked down and all of a sudden this big salmon swims past. I'll tell you, it scared the crap out of me."

Mr. Buchanan followed the pink salmon upstream and using an underwater video camera on the end of a long pole he soon captured images of 14 salmon.

Mark Angelo, chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, said the rebirth of Britannia Creek is a stunning event.

The stream was poisoned by the Britannia copper mine, which operated from 1904 to 1974. After it closed, contaminated water continued to flow from the mine, depositing more than 600 kilograms of heavy metal a day in the stream and Howe Sound. It was the largest acid mine in North America.

"I first stopped at Britannia 35 years ago, on my way to Whistler," said Mr. Angelo. "I walked upstream turning over rocks and I didn't find one insect … it was a dead zone. There was just nothing living there."

Mr. Angelo also went diving in Howe Sound and found the acidic waters had created "an underwater moonscape" in the ocean.

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Community groups began to lobby the government for action but it took decades before the province issued a request in 2004 for proposals to clean up the contaminated water. EPCOR got the $27-million contract and in 2005 opened a facility that, in the following year, treated four billion litres of water and removed more than 255,000 kilograms of heavy metals.

"I thought it was going to take a long time, decades, to show results," said Mr. Angelo. "It is remarkable how fast we have seen a turnaround."

Rob Bell-Irving, Sea-to-Sky community advisor for the federal Department of Fisheries, said the first indication of change came last year when volunteer stream keepers saw a few small trout.

"Britannia Creek is being recolonized by fish coming from two different directions," he said. "Trout are dropping down from water above the mine site, where they managed to survive, and now we have pink salmon coming in from the sea."

Mr. Bell-Irving said the water treatment plant has "been a game changer" not only for Britannia, but for all of Howe Sound.

"My in-basket is full of pictures people are emailing me of whales, dolphins, sea lions. It is amazing," he said.

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The Sound has also benefited from a remarkable discovery made by the Squamish Streamkeepers Society. While looking for ways to improve herring habitat, volunteers noticed fish eggs laid on creosote-covered wood pilings at the Squamish Terminal docks were all dying.

In 2006, the group began wrapping the pilings with non-toxic landscape fabric – and the herring population, which had all but vanished, soon rebounded.

"This year, we had a massive spawn," said Jack Cooley, who is co-chair of the society. "We've never seen anything like it. Herring were spawning everywhere."

The return of herring to Howe Sound and salmon to Britannia Creek are linked events that illustrate the resilience of nature and the ability of people to make a difference.

"The lesson of Britannia is that we should never give up on any river," said Mr. Angelo.

World Rivers Day is next Sunday. One of the celebratory events will be held at the Britannia Mine Museum on the banks of a stream that after 100 years has come back to life.

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