The 20-year campaign to protect endangered fish has found only one place on earth

Morrison Creek Headwaters, a 22-acre parcel of protected land in Comox Valley that is home to four species of salmon and the endangered Morrison Creek Lamprey.Chad Hipolito / The globe and the post

Morrison Creek Lamprey could only be beautiful in the eyes of a biologist. But the jawless fish, with its wide open disc-shaped mouth and silver eel-like body, has become a concern even among those less sensitive to its charm, because it is found in only one place on the land: an unusual, drought-proof stretch of wetlands on Vancouver Island.

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

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

“It’s a magical thing here,” said conservation biologist Tim Ennis, who was running his fingers through one of the small, eternal streams of water that feed wetlands.

Mr. Ennis, executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, was involved in a 20-year community effort to protect Morrison Creek Lamprey, which faces extinction if development is allowed.

Morrison Creek Lamprey, found only in the creek from which it takes its name, has evolved since the last Ice Age, surviving periods of drought thanks to the creek constantly replenished by freshwater springs gushing from the ground, a gift of the glacier-fed Lake Comox.CHAD HIPOLITO / The globe and the post

Its goal there are a few weeks to go. Morrison Creek headwaters owner Manulife Investment has offered to sell a 289-acre parcel to the land fund. The deadline for closing the deal is the end of December, and a network of environmentalists has raised most of the purchase price by $ 4.75 million.

British Columbia is home to the largest amount of biodiversity in the country, but the provincial government and Ottawa have been unable to reach an agreement on the protection of new protected areas. Where progress is made, it is joined by First Nations and nonprofits, and sometimes both together, as government talks continue.

Many of these non-profit organizations are land funds such as the one managed by Mr. Ennis, organizations whose main business is to buy private land and protect it from development. The 148 currently in existence in Canada have collectively assembled more than half a million hectares. They often use initial government money, which is accompanied by private contributions.

Their work fills a gap left by the shutdown of government action. Canada, along with the other Group of Seven countries, has pledged to conserve or protect at least 30% of its lands, inland waters, and coastal and marine areas by 2030. As an intermediate step, Ottawa has set a target of 25% . by 2025, but it still has a long way to go.

Less than 14% of Canada’s land and waters are protected, and the country adds 0.8% annually on average. That pace doesn’t put Canada on track to succeed.

See some of the scenery around Morrison Creek, BC via drone.

The globe and the mail

Morrison Creek has long been eyed for protection by local conservationists, and the status of its unique lamprey is a meeting point. Formally known as Lampetra richardsoni, the fish has been considered 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 both sides of the water it lives in.

However, the lamprey, which is “extremely susceptible to habitat loss” under the federal protection order, is in decline. There is constant development pressure in the surrounding Comox Valley urban area. A small portion of land near the stream has been protected as a park, but the trust fund’s purchase of the Manulife lands would secure most of the rest of the lamprey’s habitat.

Mr. Ennis wore high waterproof boots to lead a tour through the land that 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 functioning as a wildlife refuge,” he explained as he paddled around the edge of a beaver dam.

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

Conservation biologist Tim Ennis uses GPS to indicate the Morrison Creek headwaters.CHAD HIPOLITO / The globe and the post

Morrison Creek is dense with wildlife. Including the lamprey, it hosts 14 endangered species. The red alders that line a well-used wildlife trail are marked by the claw marks of black bears and the landscape is shaped by beavers.

A mink peered at a visitor from its shelter on a river bank before swimming past the carcass of a Coho salmon that had finished spawning. The reliable flow of the stream has made this a highly productive salmon habitat.

Of all creatures, Mr. Ennis has a penchant for lamprey, which does not exceed six inches. “Lampreys are a particularly ancient life form and seeing how it can evolve into a completely different type of lamprey here is really a testament to the stability of hydrology in this ecosystem,” he said. “I think they are pretty cool. They are a long and very elegant silver fish, and I think they are quite elegant when you watch them move in the water.

The local first nation K’ómoks calls the headwaters of Morrison Creek qax mot, which means “a lot of medicine” in their traditional language. Mr. Ennis noted that the conservation effort will ensure that the K’ómoks have access to the abundance and diversity of medicinal plants in the area that have actually been enclosed by private land ownership.

Morrison Creek Lamprey, which is “extremely susceptible to habitat loss” under the federal protection order, is in decline.Morrison Valley Creek Guardians

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 has escalated public appreciation for nature and that this has helped drive fundraising efforts.

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

“But there is also just a much higher level of global awareness, particularly in BC, about the climate and our loss of diversity. People want to do tangible things about bigger problems and protecting the land in your area where you live is a very real 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 the post


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