Salmon are returning to North Delta’s Cougar Creek, but the local streamkeepers don’t know if this will be a good year for the spawning fish or not.
“We hope it’s a good year,” said Deborah Jones, the rain gardens coordinator for the Cougar Creek Streamkeepers. “But these things run in cycles.”
In 2016 volunteers with the Cougar Creek Streamkeepers counted about 200 fish returning to spawn in the creek. Last year saw about half that number.
“We’re always hopeful to see as much as we saw in 2016,” Jones said. “But realistically probably it will be something less than that.”
So far, the streamkeepers have had about a dozen sightings of salmon in the creek. This isn’t unusual: after all, salmon only started returning to the creek at the beginning of November, and will continue to spawn until early December or potentially even early January.
“It’s not like the old days when there were thousands of them thrashing around for a place to spawn,” Jones said.
You can still see them, she added, “you just have to be quiet, patient, and most sightings are earlier in the morning rather than in the midday. The fish can be quite secretive.”
So far this year, the returning salmon have been mostly wild coho, although a chum salmon was spotted at the flood gate down near River Road. The Cougar Creek Streamkeepers release far more chum than coho — about 150,000 every year — but the coho are the fish who tend to come back to spawn.
“They could be descendants of ones we have released,” Jones explained. “We still release 1,000 coho into the system, but they have a clipped fin and so far none of our sightings have had a clipped fin.”
No matter how many fish come back to the stream to spawn, they will all be welcomed by ideal creek conditions, Jones said.
New weirs (rock barriers that create deep pools in the creek) have created ideal spawning grounds for returning salmon, and the water quality is excellent because October rains washed away much of the toxins that could seep into the creek from the roadways.
The questionable aspect, and the one that will most likely affect the numbers of returning salmon, as the ocean conditions.
“Everything is looking good [in the creek],” Jones said. “But as I say, ocean conditions are anybody’s guess.” Earlier this year, salmon fishing was cancelled for both chinook and sockeye salmon because of returns that were expected to be lower than usual.
For now, in North Delta’s Cougar Creek, there’s not much the streamkeepers can do besides wait and count. But Jones is asking local residents to do their part of protect the local salmon population.
Between now and the end of April, the streamkeepers are asking pet owners to keep their furry friends out of the creek.
“No paws, no feet in the creek,” she said. “It’s great in the summer when you have a hot black lab … the fish are mature enough to swim away from all the silt and the turmoil. But this time of year, once the fish have laid their eggs, a dog just trotting around in the creek can completely destroy the eggs and nest.”
Even when the fish hatch, they are at risk, Jones said. Their gills are tiny when they first hatch in February or March, and they might not be strong enough to swim away from sediment that could suffocate them.
Jones is also reminding residents to be careful what goes down their storm drains.
“Anything going down a drain in a street is going straight into a creek,” she said.
“I think most people are pretty good about spills now — they’re not, God forbid, pouring paint or motor oil down storm drains,” she added. “But even stuff that’s seemingly as innocuous as washing your car can be introducing toxins into the creek.”