Salmon in British Columbia are known as a keystone species. This is because they support more than 130 other species with their nutrients, including humans. Because they live in streams, lakes, rivers, estuaries and open ocean, the health of salmon populations are a good indicator of how well we are taking care of our marine and land-based ecosystems along Canada's Pacific coastline. If we have healthy salmon runs, then we have probably achieved good management of human activities and watershed conservation. The Pacific Salmon Foundation does the core of its work for watershed conservation by funding more than 300 streamkeeping groups across the province. Streamkeepers volunteer thousands of hours in local streams and estuaries to ensure there is optimal habitat for salmon to return to and spawn.
Each year millions of salmon return to their birth place to spawn in more than 3,500 coastal rivers and streams. Besides offering an all-you-can eat buffet for predators such as whales, bears and bald eagles, one of the most important things they do is die. During spawning, rivers quickly become choked with dead rotting salmon. As the fish decompose, nutrients leach back into the river system providing nutrients for some 130 species of plants and animals – from algae, fungi to cedar trees, and from insects, to song-birds on up to large mammals. But this cycle doesn’t happen unless a number of factors are in place. Factors like cool, clean water, complex habitat (logs and plants that provide shade and shelter) and spawning gravel to house the next generation. So in truth, streamkeepers are also keepers of the forest, and various other flora and fauna that depend on Pacific salmon.
The Pacific Salmon Foundation's Community Salmon Program supports the work of streamkeepers in British Columbia. Funds for the program are raised through a combination of individual, corporate and non-profit donations, and through proceeds from sales of the Salmon Conservation Stamp. The stamp provides about $1 million per year in funding, with total funds available amounting to about $1.5 million per year. The Community Salmon Program supports about 35,000 streamkeepers across British Columbia and the Yukon.
Streamkeepers are citizen-scientists who play a vital role not just in watershed conservation, but also in fisheries management. They operate small-scale hatcheries that support local salmon fisheries and provide key metrics on returning salmon to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. These metrics inform hatchery-production plans and fisheries openings and closings in specific areas. The essence of their role is to monitor local streams for changes over time from a long-term perspective. This is crucial to the survival of salmon, because it helps us understand how minute changes in the ecosystem are affecting salmon and what we can do to help.
The Streamkeepers Program is modeled after stream stewardship programs in the United States and supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP). Capilano College (continuing education program) offers the three credit college course to become a streamkeeper at many locations in the province, wherever there are at least ten interested people. This course has a 22 hour classroom component and a 36 hour stream survey practicum. The Streamkeepers handbook can be downloaded here. Students do the practicum on their own and submit the work for credit. For information, contact Capilano College or the Pacific Streamkeepers Federation, a non-profit initiated to support streamkeepers in British Columbia.