The 20-year campaign to protect endangered fish found on one spot on Earth

The 20-year campaign to protect endangered fish found on one spot on Earth

Morrison Creek Headwaters, a 22-hectare piece of protected land in the Comox Valley that is home to four species of salmon and the endangered Morrison Creek lamprey.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The Morrison Creek lamprey may only be beautiful to a biologist. But the jawless fish, with its gaping disc-like mouth and silvery eel-like body, has become a concern even for those less susceptible to its charms, as it is only found in one place. on earth: an unusual place, resistant to drought. stretch of wetland on Vancouver Island.

This species of lamprey has evolved since the last Ice Age, even surviving periods of drought like the one that dried up many of the island’s rivers in recent months. This longevity is the result of a particular hydrological feature of his home: the creek is constantly fed by freshwater springs gushing from the ground, a gift from glacier-fed Lake Comox.

As climate change threatens sensitive ecosystems around the world, this small pocket of forests and wetlands is well protected. But most of the land is reserved for heavy industry and is owned by a multinational forestry company.

“It’s a magical thing here,” said conservation biologist Tim Ennis, running his fingers through one of the everlasting little trickles of water that nourish wetlands.

Mr. Ennis, executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, has been part of a 20-year community effort to protect the Morrison Creek lamprey, which is at risk of extinction if development is allowed.

The Morrison Creek lamprey, found only in the creek that gives it its name, has evolved since the last Ice Age, surviving periods of drought thanks to the creek constantly fed by gushing freshwater springs from the ground, a gift from glacier-fed Lake Comox.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

His goal is a few weeks away from completion. The owner of the headwaters of Morrison Creek, Manulife Investments, has offered to sell a 289-hectare parcel to the land trust. The deadline to seal the deal is late December, and a network of conservationists has raised most of the $4.75 million purchase price.

British Columbia is home to the most biodiversity in the country, but the provincial government and Ottawa have failed to agree on securing new protected areas. Where there is progress, it is being made by First Nations and not-for-profit organizations, and sometimes both together, as government talks progress.

Many of these nonprofits are land trusts like the one Mr. Ennis leads – organizations whose main business is to buy private land and protect it from development. The 148 that currently exist in Canada collectively cover more than half a million hectares. They often use government seed money, which is supplemented by private contributions.

Their work fills a void left by the shutdown of government action. Canada, along with the other Group of Seven countries, has committed to conserving or protecting at least 30% of its land, inland waters, and coastal and marine areas by 2030. As an interim step, Ottawa has set a target of 25% by 2025, but there is still a long way to go.

Less than 14% of Canada’s lands and waters are protected and, on average, the country adds 0.8% per year. This pace does not put Canada on the right path to success.

See some of the landscape around Morrison Creek, British Columbia via drone.

The Globe and Mail

Morrison Creek has long been sought after by local conservationists, and the status of its unique lamprey is a rallying point. Formerly known as Lampetra richardsoni, the fish has been listed as endangered for two decades. The federal government issued a legal order to protect the lamprey’s critical habitat from destruction in 2019, which established a narrow protected area on either side of the water where it lives.

Still, the lamprey, which is “extremely sensitive to habitat loss” according to the federal protection order, is in decline. There is constant development pressure in the surrounding urban area of ​​the Comox Valley. A small portion of the land near the creek has been protected as a park, but the land trust’s purchase of the land from Manulife would protect most of the remaining lamprey habitat.

Mr Ennis wore tall waterproof boots to lead a tour through the land he hopes will soon be preserved. The swampy terrain keeps people away for the most part, with their dogs and loud voices, “and so it ends up working as a haven for wildlife,” he explained as he waded around the edge of a beaver dam.

Development in the Comox Valley has left few large pockets of nature. “So it’s really important as a way to keep the wildlife in our communities on our side,” he said.

Conservation biologist Tim Ennis uses GPS to mark the headwaters of Morrison Creek.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Morrison Creek is dense with wildlife. Including the lamprey, it is home to 14 species at risk. The red alders lining a busy wildlife trail are scarred by the claw marks of black bears, and the landscape is shaped by beavers.

A mink watched a visitor from its riverside shelter before swimming past the carcass of a coho salmon that had finished spawning. The reliable flow of the stream has made it a highly productive salmon habitat.

Of all the creatures, Mr. Ennis has a weakness for the lamprey, which does not exceed 15 centimeters. “The lamprey is a particularly ancient life form, and seeing how it can evolve into a completely different type of lamprey there is really a testament to the stability of the hydrology in this ecosystem,” he said. “I think they’re quite beautiful. It’s a very elegant long silvery fish, and I think it looks quite elegant when you watch it move through the water.

The local K’ómoks First Nation call the springs of Morrison Creek qax mot, which means “many medicines” in their traditional language. Mr. Ennis noted that the conservation effort will ensure that the K’ómoks people can access the abundance and diversity of medicinal plants in the region that have been effectively locked away by private land ownership.

The Morrison Creek lamprey, which is “extremely sensitive to habitat loss” according to the federal protection order, is in decline.Morrison Valley Stream Keepers

The Comox Valley Land Trust partnered with the BC Parks Foundation to raise funds for the real estate transaction. The foundation’s chief executive, Andrew Day, said the pandemic had increased public appreciation for nature, and that this has helped boost fundraising efforts.

“There’s a huge amount of goodwill and gratitude for the natural areas we live in. And a huge desire to give back,” he said.

“But also, there is just a much higher level of global awareness, especially in British Columbia, about the climate and our loss of diversity. People want to do concrete things about larger issues, and protecting the land in your area where you live is a very concrete thing people can do.

Mr. Ennis, also executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, has a soft spot for lamprey.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

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