Salmon love the Stave. The Stave River, which juts out of the Fraser River between Mission and Maple Ridge, is one of BC’s most important chum salmon habitats. During the 1800s, the trees along the banks of the river were used to make the planks, or staves for the barrels that transported salmon across the country – also giving the river its name.

Today, the Stave salmon face a host of pressures, such as habitat fragmentation, pollution and invasive species that choke up the waterways. So rather than focus on taking fish out, a host of organizations are trying to keep them in, and they’re doing it by building salmon grocery stores and nurseries.

Natashia Cox, a biologist and project manager for the Fraser Valley Watershed Coalition (FVWC) has been studying the Stave for the past six years.

While the salmon use the Fraser River as a highway, she calls the Stave River and the little freshwater channels that twine through it, “highway intersections.”

The ocean tide runs along that highway and into those intersections. This ebb and flow allows nutrients to drift into the channels and ultimately, into the salmons’ bellies. This is what makes those little channels off the Stave River so crucial. “When young salmon make their way down the Stave River, they need layovers. They need to catch their breath, they need to grow,” says Cox.

For the past year, the FVWC has been working with a host of partners to carve out more channels where salmon can enjoy these layovers. It’s a multi-year project that has been in the works since 2014.

For salmon, as with humans, a well-spent layover means getting a decent bite to eat. Currently the team is working on installing what Cox calls the grocery stores and nurseries, and they’re doing that by building underwater forests. “Just like there are tree forests in the mountains, there’s an aquatic forest that gets wetted along with the tide,” says Cox.

First the team digs offshoot channels, and then, with the help of an army of volunteers, they plant vegetation in and around the channels to form the forests. Those forests attract bugs, provide protection from predators like bears and create cool places for the salmon to thrive as they undergo the demanding transition from freshwater- to saltwater-tolerant fish.

A project of this size takes a network of people and organizations. “It’s really rewarding when the partnerships that you create and the teams that come together…bring the project to a higher value.” Salmon is the keystone species, but the restoration project benefits the entire ecosystem in the area, human community included. “To see the volunteers come out and help us is really incredible,” Says Cox, “It takes a community to create projects like this.”

The project is ongoing but Cox is optimistic about the potential impact – and with good reason. Finishing up an earlier project on the same river, she was in a kayak when she witnessed the results of their work. So many salmon had discovered the small channels, she says “It felt like we were kayaking on the backs of salmon.”

For more on the Stave River restoration and its partners, check out the FVWC website where you can also sign up for the volunteer newsletter and be notified about upcoming projects.

Here’s a related story – re-sewing eel grass along the coast of the Salish sea – and more volunteer opportunities!

– photo credit:  N. Cox