5 Life Lessons from the Cook Family Tree Farm

Warren Cook standing in the Chef Creek estuary on his property.

Warren Cook working on the Chef Creek enhancement project on his property in 2006.

Whether you’re a forest owner, a land manager or a tree farmer you bring a vision and commitment to the work you do. You know the decisions you make today will have an impact on generations to come. You take this responsibility seriously and it shows.

A recent visit to Warren Cook’s 87-acre Managed Forest property near Bowser on Vancouver Island reminded us just how much pride goes into the work of managing B.C.’s private forest lands.

Warren is the fourth generation Cook to hold title to this property. Back in 1883, long before railways or highways, Warren’s ancestors, Ephram and Ezra Cook, paddled a canoe from Nanaimo and purchased 500 acres at a price of $1 per acre. Warren’s property has been in the Cook family ever since.

The trip from Nanaimo to Deep Bay, the same one Warren’s ancestors took via canoe 132 years ago—a trip that probably required considerable strength, planning and preparation, and likely resulted in blisters and back ache along the way—we managed to accomplish in about 40 minutes, with little effort, via Highway 19, while sipping frothy-lattes and listening to a lively blend of top 40 hits. Times sure have changed.

Steven, Amber and Bruce Cook.

Bruce Cook (right) with his brother Steven (left) and his daughter Amber (centre) surrounded by Douglas-fir seedlings recently planted by Amber and Bruce. Apologies for the blurry photo, the photographer takes all the blame.

We arrived to find Warren’s two sons, Bruce and Steven, and his 23-year-old granddaughter Amber, hard at work on a Friday afternoon—busy cleaning up the property after a recent harvesting operation. Bruce explains, “We’ll be cleaning up through the fall and winter, getting ready to plant a couple of thousand trees in the spring.”

Bruce and Amber already have a jump on the planting with a few hundred Douglas-fir seedlings planted in an area where they only took out six or seven trees, but they’ll hire a professional crew to do the rest of the planting next spring.

A stroll, and an ATV ride, around the property, with Warren’s son Bruce and a sweet dog named Stella Grace, quickly revealed how the family’s rich stories from the past inform the work they do today, and at the same time, help point toward the future and the continuation of the Cook family legacy.

Inspired by our visit, we put together a list of 5 Life Lessons from the Cook Family Tree Farm:

Life lesson #1: Know your roots.

You can’t go too far on Warren Cook’s property without noticing signs of the family’s history. Bruce points to an old, orange tractor, parked on the driveway near the house, and explains, with a smile, “Oliver was my grandpa’s first farm tractor, but he was too scared to operate it so he never ran it.”

an old orange tractor

“Oliver”, the first piece of farm equipment Bruce’s grandfather bought.

Small, wooden signs nailed to trees throughout the property tell what year, and by whom, nearby trees were planted. It’s a visual record that keeps track of the history of the plantations and gives everyone a bit of credit for the work they do.

A milk-crate-sized metal box with holes and a lid sits near the Chef Creek estuary. Bruce explains, “This was my grandma’s refrigerator. It’s how she kept the milk and butter cold. She put them in the box and then put the box in the creek.”

A big sign, the sort you’d see in a provincial park, with pictures, maps, photos, and a detailed history of the Cook family and the Chef Creek estuary is situated not too far from the house. The sign, a gift from the province after a 2006 salmon enhancement project, is perhaps the most obvious reminder of the family’s deep roots and connection to the area.

Life lesson #2: Work with good people.

A sign attached to a tree saying when and by whom the trees were planted.

Signs indicate what year and by whom nearby plantations were planted.

These days, Warren, his son Bruce, and Bruce’s daughter Amber, do most of the work on the property. After a heart attack, at the age of 58, Warren stopped working at the mill in Campbell River and moved to the property full time with his late wife Irene Cook, living in a small trailer until they built the house about 20 years ago.

Bruce has worked full time with his dad, on the property and managing the family oyster business, for over two decades. Bruce’s brother, Steven, works out of province and comes home to help when he can.

Any questions they don’t have answers for they research, ask experts or find resources to help.  The work they can’t do themselves, for example the recent harvesting operation, they find good people to help them with—they ask around, talk to locals, get recommendations, and find reputable people to do good work.

Good people make all the difference.

Life lesson #3: Take pride in what you do.

Together, the Cook family takes a lot of pride in the work they do. Steven explains, “Just to see the look in my father’s eyes when he comes out and sees his trees—he has a lot of pride in what he’s done.”

Life lesson #4: Have a vision and stick to it.

It’s hard to get where you’re going if you don’t have a plan or a vision for what it’ll look like when you get there.

planted seedlings with browse protectors

Cedar seedlings planted with browse protectors in a previously swampy area.

Steven describes, “This was always my grandfather’s dream, and dad’s just carried it on. He loves his trees. He’s like the Johnny Appleseed of Deep Bay, out there planting every day.”

He goes on to say, “Yesterday, 82 years old, out here with his walking stick because he wanted to plant a tree. I was saying, ‘Dad, slow down, you need your rest’, but he just can’t stop. The other day, he brought me a whipper snipper, ‘Can you do that bank?’ he said ‘I want my trees to get some sunshine.’ And then he wanted to come out and see how I did. ‘You missed a couple there,’ he said.

Nobody said having a vision is easy, but it sure pays off if you stick with it.

Life lesson #5: Everything is connected and you can make a difference.

In 2013, Ducks Unlimited Canada awarded Warren Cook the Wildlife Habitat Canada Award. The award is in recognition of the preservation and enhancement of the Chef and Cook Creek watersheds on Warren Cook’s property.

Sign explains the Cook family history

Signage at the Chef Creek estuary describes the Cook family history and the Chef Creek watershed.

A biologist with the Ministry of Transportation describes Warren Cook as “a landowner steward in action that deserves a lot of credit and recognition for his overall philosophy and approach to maintaining and enhancing the rich environmental values on his property. He, and his father previously, allowed and encouraged salmon research, assessment and restoration to take place on his property, owned by the Cooks since 1883.”

Bruce explains, “Dad can remember, when he was a little boy, the salmon running up the creek were so many you could cross the creek and your feet wouldn’t get wet.”

We’ll include more information about the preservation and enhancement projects in a future post, but for now a big thanks to the Cook family for their work, the tour and the inspiration.

42 Seedlings for 42 Years: A Tree Planting Story

Log buyer Dave Kral meets with Rod Bealing to discuss bucking specs to ensure the highest value is captured in the log making process. Photo credit: Totangi Properties Ltd.

Log buyer Dave Kral meets with Rod Bealing to discuss bucking specs to ensure the highest value is captured in the log making process. Photo credit: Totangi Properties Ltd.

Not everybody gets the chance to come full circle in your work— to go back where you started and see the difference you made. Dave Kral, a log buyer for TimberWest, got that opportunity earlier this spring when TimberWest began reforestation on a recently harvested block near Sooke, B.C., on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

If you’re a forest owner on the coast of British Columbia, with logs for sale, you probably know Dave Kral. As a log buyer for TimberWest, Dave’s been in the business for a long time. He’s a likeable guy, with a great reputation, and many PFLA members have had the chance to do business with him.

You might be surprised to learn Dave hasn’t always worked in the logs and stumps side of the business. Back in 1973, fresh out of school, Dave got a job with Pacific Forest Products—a former iteration of TimberWest. His first day on the job, Dave helped plant a harvested block near Sooke, B.C.

That’s right. While most of us were watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show, listening to Elton John and Marvin Gaye top the charts with Crocodile Rock and Let’s Get it On, marveling over shrinky dinks and cheering Henri Richard and the Montreal Canadiens to Stanley Cup victory, Dave Kral was an 18-year-old rookie tree planter, jostling along in the backseat of a crummy, headed for the reefer, ready to pound—brown side down, green side up.

planted seedling Forty-two years later, Dave still works with the same company, and he’s come back to help plant the third generation of seedlings to grow on this site.

“Back then we had broadcast burns,” Dave explains looking around. “This would be all gone, no branches, no nothing. Just black soil.”

A lot can change in forty-two years—policies, practices, people—but with the right commitment, passion and continuity, a lot can stay the same too.

Forest owners in BC are legally responsible to reforest all harvested areas. Tree planting takes place twice a year on TimberWest lands with approximately 6 million seedlings planted and 3.6 million harvested. In total, about 12.5 million trees are planted on private forestland in B.C. each year.

TimberWest contracts local nurseries to grow a portion of seedlings and Safe Certified companies for planting. The company’s silviculture program is a valuable contributor to the local economy and is an integral part of sustainable forest management.

five men standing with hard hats and visibility vests

Left to right: Bruce Devitt—Former Chief Forester, Dave Kral—TimberWest Log Buyer, Gary Haut—Former Planting Foreman, Domenico Iannidinardo—TimberWest VP Sustainability & Chief Forester, Peter Bontkes—Planting Foreman

Joined by former chief forester, Bruce Devitt, former planting foreman, Gary Haut, TimberWest chief forester, Domenico Iannidinardo and current planting foreman, Peter Bontkes, Dave was proud to plant 42 seedlings—one for each year he’s worked with TimberWest.

Dave explains, “In my career this is no doubt my proudest moment. There’s nothing to compare to it. Who would have thought I’d be coming back here 42 years later to plant again? It’s great!”

PFLA was honoured and inspired to celebrate this day with Dave Kral and TimberWest. You can watch a video from the event below, or you can watch it on TimberWest’s YouTube channel. You can also read the complete story here. Congratulations Dave!

If you’d like to impress Dave, or dinner party guests, with your knowledge and understanding of tree planting culture, we’ve included some terms below to help expand your vocabulary.

Easy-to-plant land — cream

Difficult-to-plant land — schnarb

Land on which you plant trees — block, piece

Layer of moss and twigs above the soil — duff

Ground left just as it was after it was logged — raw, unscarified

Someone who plants many trees a day — highballer

A first-time planter — rookie

The vehicle that brings you to and from your worksite — crummy

Where you do Number Two in camp — shitter

Painful afflictions of the hand — the claw

Where you store trees during the day — cache

Trees that come encased in dirt, with minimal root exposure — plug

The truck in which trees are stored — reefer

Planting a line away from the existing line of trees — ghost lining

Planting as hard as you can — pounding

The action of kicking away debris to clear the ground — screefing

Hiding or throwing away trees — stash

The terms above are copied from the post Planting Slang published on The Art of Tree Planting: A Pounders Resources website which were borrowed from T. Colin Strong’s paper Reefer, Schnarb and Crummy Drivers: A Treeplanter’s Lexicon.

How To Care For Your Road Network?

roadWelcome to the sixth and final post in our “Planning Your Road Network” series.

It’s true a well-planned and constructed roadway can help minimize potential problems, but a regular maintenance program is necessary to ensure the long-term stability of your road system.

The good news is, in most cases you can carry out an effective road maintenance program with hand tools, some gravel and a truck.

Potential trouble areas, such as wet spots, culverts and steep grades should be noted. Regular inspections should be carried out, with additional checks after heavy rains.

New roads and roads with heavy traffic should get special attention.

Before and after wet season maintenance is most important—a little shovel work at the right time can prevent potentially larger problems later on.

Maintenance inspections should:

  • check all drainage structures
  • remove debris from ditches and culverts
  • watch ditches for flooding or signs of bank erosion
  • check inlets and outlets of culverts for scouring

Road grading should be carried out as needed to maintain road shape and surface, depending on the size of operations and frequency of use.

Ruts and potholes should be filled in before spring rains.

Cut banks may be vegetated to combat erosion. There are several commercial seed mixes available for varying roadside conditions (e.g., sunny, shady, wet or dry).

Spur roads, not needed all the time, can be put to ‘bed’ by digging short drainage ditches (water bars) across them to control winter and spring runoffs.

What are some environmental considerations?

Road development has a major influence on the efficiency and cost of harvesting operations. It is important that roads are well planned, engineered and constructed from the outset.

Road building requires a large commitment of financial resources and specialized expertise to minimize environmental impacts. Though logging is often believed to be the source of erosion and siltation, it is the roads associated with logging that are often the real cause of such damage.

The importance of careful planning and construction cannot be overemphasized.

The dislocation of vegetation and soil, and manipulation of water flows brought about by road building can have harmful effects on the environment. Waterways are the most vulnerable since they pick up the silt and debris disrupted during construction.

As a general rule, inexperienced people should only attempt road building under favourable conditions (i.e., well-drained soils, slopes below 30%, stable terrain, no major stream crossings) and in situations where the road will not be subject to intensive use. In all other circumstances, advice from experienced operators is recommended.

Suggested Guidelines:

  • Construct roads reasonable distances from fisheries sensitive zones
  • Avoid construction in areas of high slope instability
  • Stop construction when soils are extremely wet
  • Leave streams clear of construction debris
  • Provide adequate sub-grade drainage
  • Ensure that drainage is adequate to handle interrupted surface and sub-surface flows
  • Maintain width and gradient of active stream channels
  • Leave roads, drainage structures, and watercourses in a condition to minimize erosion

As always, thanks to A Non-forester’s Guide to Small-scale forestry in British Columbia for the information excerpted above.

You can follow the links below to view previous posts in the six-part series:

Stand Tending 101: Planning Your Road Network

Planning Your Road Network (Part II)—How Much Can You do?

Planning Your Road Network (Part III)—Starting Construction

What’s the Secret to A Good Roadbed?

What’s the Secret to A Good Roadbed? (Part II)

Wildlife Habitat and the Vancouver Island Marmot

VI marmot

A decline in the number of Vancouver Island marmots during the 1990s led to the creation of the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Photo credit: Marmot Recovery Foundation

Public demand places increasing pressure on government to demonstrate appropriate steps are being taken to protect endangered species. PFLA spends considerable effort improving awareness, at both the federal and provincial levels, of the contributions landowners make to wildlife habitat in British Columbia.

PFLA executive director, Rod Bealing, explains, “A lot of the work we do is as much about telling the story of what’s already happening on private land as it is about coming up with an idea about how to fix a problem.”

The story of the Vancouver Island marmot is one such example of the voluntary active involvement, financial support, land contributions and continued commitment, over 15 years, by private forest companies to help ensure the recovery of an endangered species.

TimberWest biologist, Dave Lindsay, explains, “During the 1990s the numbers of Vancouver Island marmots began to seriously decline. Increased predation and possibly disease outbreaks resulted in this species plummeting to a low of 37 individuals in 2003. Most of these remaining individuals were in colonies on private managed forestland.”

In 1999, the Marmot Recovery Foundation was formed with a recovery goal to establish a self-sustaining wild population of Vancouver Island marmots—400 to 600 marmots living in three meta-populations. The population goal is based on the idea that sufficient natural habitat exists on Vancouver Island to support three meta-populations of 150-200 animals each.

The Landowners Partner Fund provides core funding to the Marmot Recovery Foundation and helps ensure the implementation of annual Recovery Strategy work plans from year to year. Since it’s inception, Island Timberlands and TimberWest have contributed over 3 million dollars to the Marmot Recovery Foundation.

A national captive breeding program—including partnerships across the country with the Calgary and Toronto zoos, Mountain View Conservation Centre, and the Tony Barrett Mt Washington Marmot Recovery Centre—led to captive bred marmots being released back into the wild.

A range of predator management programs were also initiated, survival increased and the successful relocation and release of many more marmots onto a wider range of Vancouver Island mountains resulted in a remarkable comeback.

There are currently 24 successful colonies established in three regions on Vancouver Island.

How to recognize a Vancouver Island marmot?

The Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) is a member of the squirrel family. Weighing in at about 4.5-5.5 kilos (females) and 7.5 kilos (males) the Vancouver Island marmot is roughly the size of a large house cat.

Among other fury creatures, the Vancouver Island marmot is recognizable by its rich chocolate brown fur with contrasting white patches on the nose, chin, forehead and chest. Marmots also have large beaver-like teeth, sharp claws and powerful shoulder and leg muscles for digging.

Did you know Vancouver Island marmots live in colonies?

Photo credit: Marmot Recovery Foundation

There are currently 24 successful colonies of Vancouver Island marmots established in three regions on Vancouver Island. Photo credit: Marmot Recovery Foundation

Vancouver Island marmots live in family groups called colonies. Colonies are relatively small and often made up of family members. To avoid the effects constant inbreeding would have on the species, marmots leave their natal colony to find a mate at a colony nearby. This movement of marmots between colonies is called dispersal.

Thanks to the recovery efforts of the Marmot Recovery Foundation, there are currently 24 successful colonies established in three regions on Vancouver Island— Nanaimo Lakes region, the Mount Washington-Forbidden Plateau region, and the western Strathcona Park-Schoen Lake Park region.

Where do Vancouver Island marmots live?

Vancouver Island marmots live in small patches of south and west-facing sub-alpine and alpine meadows (usually above 1000 meters). Marmots hibernate, with their family groups, in underground burrows from mid-September until late April or early May.

During the active summer months, the Vancouver Island marmot enjoys a fairly relaxed lifestyle. A few hours a day is spent looking for food, eating and interacting with other marmots, and the rest of the time you can find marmots lounging on rocks watching for predators like wolves, cougars and eagles.

Learn lots more about the Vancouver Island marmot

Please visit the Marmot Recovery Foundation website for lots more information about the characteristics, behavior and habitat of the Marmota vancouverensis (along with some pretty cute pictures).

You’ll also find details about the history, partnerships and community efforts that contribute to the continued success of the Vancouver Island marmot recovery strategy, along with information about how you can help.

Follow the link to the complete recovery strategy document prepared by the Vancouver Island Recovery Team.

Watersheds, Local Government and Managed Forest Land

McGarrigle Creek, Mt BensonOver the past few months, PFLA has been involved in a series of meetings with the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) and the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (AVICC). The meetings are multi-agency, multi-stakeholder events.

PFLA’s involvement is intended to help local government better understand the managed forest regulatory model, as well as the practices, relationships and programs private forest owners have in place to protect water on their land.

Councillor Solda, Director Marcotte, Councillor Price and Chair Stanhope attended on behalf of the AVICC.

Other participants included local government representatives:

  • Mayor Baird and Sundance Topham from Cumberland
  • Campbell River’s Water Supervisor, Nathalie Vaiu
  • Comox’s Senior Manager of Engineering Mark Rutten
  • Nanaimo Regional District’s CAO Paul Thorkelson

Along with representatives from:

  • Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
  • Managed Forest Council
  • Private Forest Landowners Association
  • TimberWest
  • Island Timberlands
  • Ministry of Environment
  • Vancouver Island Health Authority

The good news is the meetings are productive. We’ve seen assumptions and assertions dissolve in the face of facts and information about the level of care and attention that goes into managing and monitoring watersheds on private forestland.

The minutes from the last AVICC meeting in October include support for the development of a terms of reference for a small working stakeholder group — with representatives from VIHA, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Resource Operations, UBCM, AVICC, Private Forest Landowners Association and the Managed Forest Council — that could be pulled together to address local or regional concerns as needed.

The Managed Forest Council is also invited to submit a presentation proposal for the 2015 AVICC Convention in Courtenay, BC — April 10-12, 2015.

PFLA is pleased to add this stakeholder group to the already long list of watershed groups our members are involved with, including:

  • San Juan Stewardship Roundtable
  • Cowichan River Stewardship Roundtable
  • Cowichan Watershed Board
  • Cowichan VRD Regional Watershed Governance
  • Shawnigan Basin Society/Shawnigan Watershed Roundtable
  • Nanaimo River Watershed Roundtable
  • Englishman River Steering Committee (led by Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Society)
  • Regional District of Nanaimo Drinking Water and Watershed Protection Program, in particular the watershed monitoring and school education programs
  • Comox Lake Watershed Advisory Group
  • Campbell River Technical Watershed Committee

TimberWest Land Provides Home For Bear Den Enhancement Project

bear denA Vancouver Island bear den enhancement project supported by TimberWest Forest Corp, is now entering its second year.

Led by Helen Davis of Artemis Wildlife Consultants, the project uses a new and innovative approach that incorporates plastic culverts with existing forest structures to increase the availability of black bear dens in the Jordan River watershed.

The dens are located on TimberWest lands and a Tree Farm License (TFL) operated by Pacheedaht Anderson Timber Holdings LP.

Bear activity around the dens is an indication of the project’s success. If funding is approved, the second year of the bear den enhancement project (funded by BC Hydro’s Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program – Coastal Region) will see the creation of additional structures as well as the opportunity to further evaluate the success of the initial structures.

molly and dave

TimberWest Resource Specialist, Molly Hudson, and Senior Biologist, Dave Lindsay, placing bear dens in the Jordan River watershed.

In the early 1990s, TimberWest Senior Biologist, Dave Lindsay, initiated a company-wide bear den inventory. The inventory has been diligently maintained and continues today in the company’s second-growth forests.

“The results of this study combined with our den inventory will help us maintain healthy black bear populations across our land base,” says Lindsay.

TimberWest Resource Specialist, Molly Hudson (RPF, BIT) joined Dave Lindsay to help the Artemis Team place the bear dens.

How do you make bear dens?

Artemis Wildlife created three styles of bear dens—one style uses existing tree stumps, another style enhances existing cavities in standing trees and a third style utilizes plastic den culverts.

Davis and her crew are improving available den habitat by cutting entrances into large standing hollow cedar trees and turning large stumps with hollow centres into dens by covering the top and creating an entry for bears.

The artificial culvert dens simulate naturally-occurring den structures, closed at one end and open at the other, to allow black bears to enter. The three-metre-long dens have been installed in locations suitable for black bears on TimberWest Forest Corps lands and a TFL operated by Pacheedaht Anderson Timber Holdings LP.

The bear dens were constructed by Armtec Infrastructure in Nanaimo. In total, ten potential black bear dens were created:

  • three culvert dens were installed and capped
  • entrances were created in three stumps
  • entrances were constructed in three standing hollow trees
  • the end of one hollow log was capped

Monitoring the bear dens

three bears investigate a bear den

Remote sensing cameras are used to monitor the success of the bear dens.

In order to monitor the success of the project, remote sensing cameras were deployed at the three culvert dens and one stump den. Temperature data loggers were installed at enhanced natural structures and artificial structures.

Davis and her team observed a number of the dens, installed in July 2014, had already being investigated by bears beginning just a few days after installation.

In mid-September, Davis, joined by Lindsay and Hudson, re-visited the dens and replaced camera batteries. The recorded results were encouraging, showing a variety of bears clearly interested in the new den structures.

“The exciting thing about this project is that it is truly innovative. If it works, as we hope, then this is something we can use on all of our lands,” says Hudson. “Working with a professional biologist like Helen— an expert in her field — has been a great learning experience.”

Next steps for the project

In preparation for the second year of the project, Davis has also received a design report on creative possibilities for den design and construction materials from an industrial designer which may lead to additional options. The team is looking forward to determining whether the dens are used over the winter.

The Pacheedaht First Nation has been actively involved and supports the project as black bears figure prominently in their culture. They expressed their hope that improving and maintaining a supply of dens will maintain black bear populations.

Projects of this nature have significant environmental value, allowing researchers to gather accurate details about local bears’ general living and territorial habits. This data provides excellent information for forest management planning, recreational planning and for the general well-being of bear populations in the area.

One Fish, Two Fish—Rebuilding Coho Populations in the Englishman River

picture of a salmon on a sign

Sign posted near the rearing shed at the side channel we toured in the Englishman River watershed.

One of the highlights from the PFLA 2014 field tour was a visit to the Englishman River watershed. Resource specialists were on hand to describe the programs and processes in place to successfully rebuild salmon populations in the Englishman River, as well as some fascinating new technology used to assess and measure fish stock levels.

Dave Davies, a community advisor with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), works with over 30 different stewardship groups from Campbell River to Parksville. He describes his job as “helping people to help salmon”.

Dave provided information about fish populations in the river and some context for the construction and evolution of the side channel we visited.

According to Dave, the Englishman River watershed is a moderate size for Vancouver Island and fairly small by BC standards. The river is home to all five species of salmon — chinook, chum, coho, pink and sockeye — as well as, cutthroat and rainbow trout.

The development of cities and towns, during the early part of the century, along with historic forest harvesting and other industrial events, had lasting impacts on the river. In the mid 1990s, measures were taken to mitigate the declining salmon populations. The construction of the side channel, originally called the TimberWest side channel, was a major factor in rebuilding coho salmon populations in the river.

map of the Englishman River watershed

Dave Davies points out the location of the side channel on the map of the Englishman River watershed.

In the early 2000s, land donated by TimberWest and Island Timberlands created a network of protected parkland along the river that enables the river to rebuild itself. The side channel was extended in 2006 to reach 4.6 km in length, one of the longest side channels on Vancouver Island, and is now called the Clay Young side channel.

Dave describes the side channel as “incredibly productive” and explains that a 2009 through 2011 study determined 42 percent, almost half, of the coho smolt population for the Englishman River comes out of this side channel.

Unlike other salmon species, coho salmon spend an entire year in fresh water before heading out to sea as 6-inch smolts. Part of the problem with the main stem of the Englishman River is low-flows during the summer and high-flows during the winter make for unstable fish habitat. Because not many pools are left in the main stem of the river, the side channel provides protected habitat for coho salmon year round.

Of course, in order to know how well habitat restoration is working, you need some way to measure what you’re studying. Coho salmon are a federally governed species, so it’s the job of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to measure coho salmon populations in the Englishman River.

James Craig, from the British Columbia Conservation Foundation, described an interesting PIT tag trial project they offered the DFO in the fall of 2013 to help determine the effectiveness and efficiency of the annual DFO snorkel surveys (people with snorkels swim in the river and count the number of coho salmon they see).

James explains, “DFO uses expansion factors to calculate the actual numbers of fish in the river reported by the snorkelers each fall. The PIT tags program was a double check. It was also an effort to reconfirm the effectiveness of the side channel—see how many fish it does support, how many adults are coming back to the side channel vs. the rest of the watershed.”

What are PIT tags?

a container of PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags

Samples of PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags injected into the abdominal cavity of adult coho salmon.

PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags are small, glass-encased coils of copper, of various sizes, injected into the abdomen of fish to later track and record information about the fish.

How does the PIT tag program work?

In the fall, in the lower end of the river, angling and seining techniques were used to capture adult coho salmon. Once captured, PIT tags were injected into the abdominal cavity of the fish and they were tagged, on the dorsal surface, with a long spaghetti tag (a piece of plastic designed to show up easily). Then the fish were released back into the population to mix with the untagged fish.

Essentially, it’s an easy mark recapture study—you get a ratio of how many tags you put out, how many tags you see after, and you do the math to come up with a population estimate. It’s a simple technique, but the PIT tags are an added component.

Once the adult fish are tagged, they swim up the river and distribute naturally to wherever they might be going. The PIT tags allow you to detect the fish by simple antennas.

Using antennas to detect the PIT tags

James Craig showing an antenna used to track PIT tags

James Craig shows the rectangle shaped plastic frames used to detect the PIT tags.

A plastic frame, with extension cord wire going through it, is put in a small creek, horizontally. The wire is hooked up to a tuning box—essentially, some capacitors, and resistors and diodes and chips powered by a deep cell cycle 12-volt battery with a data logger. When the antenna detects the adult fish going by, the data is downloaded into a laptop and logged.

To summarize: fish are tagged in the lower river. Several antennas are set up in the upper river and in the side channel. Adults coming back in the fall pass the antennas, the PIT tags are detected and the information is stored.

The passive part (the P in PIT tags) is that it’s not battery operated. James explains, “The tags are inert, there’s no power. The antenna is what charges the tag. You’re charging the tag to identify itself, in a split second, when the fish swims through the antenna and releases a number that’s logged into the computer.”

What’s great about the technology?

Using the PIT tag technology to analyze and help guide habitat restoration efforts is an exciting application.

James explains, “The tags are inexpensive, 2 dollars, and they last forever. You can put them in a juvenile Chinook as small as 58 millimeters long, and they will stay in the fish and grow with the fish and come back in a 35 pound Chinook salmon, 5 years later, swim through an antenna and be detected.

equipment used to capture and log the data from the PIT tags

James Craig displays the equipment used to capture and log the data from the PIT tags.

Wherever you capture the fish, be that adult coho in the Englishman River or juvenile fish of any species, you know exactly where, when, what type of habitat it was in, how long it was there, and what condition factor it was.

When you get the fish back, as adults, you can do an analysis of how well each group of tags survived and identify which habitats were the most productive and generated the highest returns and help determine what restoration techniques are going to be the most effective at growing fish.”

Thanks to Morgan Kennah and Ken Epps from Island Timberlands for organizing this section of the field tour and thanks to Dave Davies and James Craig for interesting and engaging presentations.