Spanish Bank Creek is so small it can be stepped across in most places and children playing on a nearby popular beach in the summer often dam it with a few well-placed rocks – which salmon guardian Ron Gruber has to remove.
"Most people don't believe me when I tell them salmon spawn here," he said recently as he worked his way through a thicket of willows to the stream bank.
"But there's the proof," he said, pointing to a clean patch of gravel just a few metres upstream from a culvert under Northwest Marine Drive. "A pair of chum salmon dug a redd [or spawning nest]right there just a few weeks ago. … Their eggs are buried there and they will be hatching in the spring."
Spanish Bank Creek had a pretty good run this year – 16 coho and chum. Minuscule compared with the Fraser River, which counts its salmon into the millions, but that this tiny urban stream continues to support fish in the middle of a city is a testament to the ability of people to live in harmony with nature. And to reverse damage done.
Over the decades, the stream mouth had become impassible and, more than 50 years ago, salmon simply stopped returning, before making a comeback in November, 2000 after stream restoration had improved habitat. Wild salmon are now self-sustaining in the creek, although they are augmented by the release of hatchery-produced fish each spring.
The stream drains the highlands of Point Grey, just minutes from the downtown core, where there are housing developments and streets are busy with traffic. But for most of its course, Spanish Bank Creek runs through the protected lands of Pacific Spirit Regional Park. That, and the care provided by people like Mr. Gruber, have been its salvation.
"About 13 years ago a guy knocked on my door and said, 'We're working to restore Spanish Bank Creek. … I was told you might be interested in helping with something like that,'" said Mr. Gruber, a wood carver renowned for his lifelike duck decoys and salmon made from cedar. "I said, 'Okay, yeah, I might like to do that.'"
He had no idea just how enjoyable, or time consuming, it was going to be.
"Why do I do it?" he said, pondering a question as he made his way upstream on a cold December day. "Well, I don't know. I just love it. It's become a habit for me. Get my morning coffee, go for a walk up the stream."
Almost every day in the spring, late summer and throughout the fall, Mr. Gruber and a small group of other volunteers with Spanish Bank Creek Streamkeepers tend to the stream.
They remove debris, count salmon fry, watch for signs of returning adult salmon (the first chum came back Oct. 24 this year; the first coho Nov. 18) and clear away the dams children like to build where the stream runs across Spanish Bank Beach.
"You have to take the dams out," Mr. Gruber said. "I know it sounds mean to the kids, but those dams can delay a salmon. An hour or two can make all the difference."
Mr. Gruber says that in the big scheme of things the handful of salmon produced annually in Spanish Bank Creek don't mean much to the commercial or sport fisheries.
"But the educational value of this little stream is incredible," he said. "This year we had 1,000 students through. And I personally talked to 600 of them. That's a lot of talking."
About 25 Vancouver schools get a small number of chum eggs from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans each year, which they hatch in classroom aquariums. In the spring, the kids troop down to Spanish Bank Creek and release the fry, under Mr. Gruber's watchful eye.
Over the years, the number of fry released has been reduced, because the wild fish are spawning so successfully.
"We don't want to crowd out the wild fish, and they seem to be doing pretty good right now," Mr. Gruber said, stopping where the creek tumbles down a steep cataract.
"We never used to see fish go above that barrier," he said. But a few years ago he saw a fish splashing at the base of the waterfall, then plunging upstream.
This year, probing upstream above the falls, Mr. Gruber found a few bright orange eggs rolling along the stream bottom. He broke into a big smile telling that story. When salmon spawn, it is natural that a few eggs wash away. He knows that for every wayward egg he saw, there were thousands more, buried safely in the gravel, waiting to hatch.
And that, he said, is the sign of a salmon stream that works.
What it is: Spanish Bank Creek is a small stream in the middle of a highly developed urban centre. A large part of the stream runs through a protected park, and is set deep inside a gulley. Although salmon stopped returning to the stream around 1950, much of the watershed remained in good shape, making restoration and the reintroduction of salmon possible.
Why it works: In 1994, Nick Page, of Raincoast Applied Ecology, developed a restoration plan for the stream and, over the past 17 years the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Vancouver Parks Board, the B.C. Ministry of Environment and a volunteer group known as Spanish Bank Creek Streamkeepers, have worked in partnership to bring the stream back to life. Building a holding pond and opening up the stream mouth so fish could enter from the sea were two big improvements. In November, 2000, after more than 50 years without salmon, the first coho returned. Those fish came from hatchery stock, but wild salmon are now self-sustaining in the creek. They come back every winter in varying numbers, with the highest in 2004 when more than 60 chum returned.