Community rallies to protect endangered ‘crazy ugly’ fish only found in B.C.

Click to play video: 'Rare fish habitat on Vancouver Island protected'
Rare fish habitat on Vancouver Island protected
There's a rare fish species that exists only on Vancouver Island and nowhere else in the world. The endangered species was discovered in Morrison Creek nearly two decades ago and as Aaron McArthur reports, the fight to protect its habitat is only now coming to a conclusion – May 27, 2023

An ancient, endangered jawless fish that can only be found in British Columbia is now safer, thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens, private donors and a handful of partnering organizations.

A unique form of freshwater lamprey, endemic to the Morrison Creek Headwaters in K’omoks First Nation territory, was discovered in the region more than 30 years ago.

Since then, local advocates have been trying to protect the privately-owned land by raising the funds to buy it, and recently raked in more than $500,000 to seal the deal.

“It’s just that story of persistence, the way British Columbians love their backyard and are willing to fight for it,” said Andy Day, CEO of the BC Parks Foundation. “It’s just one of those jewels.”

The protected area of the Morrison Headwaters is seen in a map next to Comox Lake and Cumberland, B.C. Environmental organizations, concerned citizens, private donors and others have recently fundraised enough to buy the land, protecting it from industry forever. Submitted

According to the foundation, the 715-acre headwaters of the Morrison Creek watershed are home to bears, cougars, deer, mink, beaver, medicinal plants, and one of the most productive natural salmon runs in the region.

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There are 13 species at risk in the area in addition to year-long, spring-fed creeks that are resistant to drought. Its star, however, is the lamprey, which Day describes as a “crazy ugly-looking” fish, first found by a woman named Carly Palmer while out with her family.

Lampreys are primitive eel-like carnivores with a funnel-type mouth full of sharp little teeth. They have no bone or scales, just cartilage, and begin life as larvae.

The Morrison Creek lamprey is seen in spring of 2005 in a photo by Jim Palmer, published in the federal government’s Species At Risk Act 2006 recovery strategy for the fish.

Prior to their protection, 680 acres of the watershed were zoned for heavy industry, but its owner, Manulife Investment Management, was willing to sell it.

The B.C. Parks Foundation partnered with Comox Valley Land Trust, building on the work of the Palmer-Gemmell family, to fundraise for it.

Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Sitka Foundation, the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, the Courtenay Fish and Game Protective Association, and BC Hydro’s Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program all added to the crowdfunding pot.

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“We’ll work with the regional district there and it will become a regional nature reserve,” said Day, whose organization aims to protect 25 valuable places and 25 per cent of land and sea in the province by 2025.

“Parks are for everyone and so is the opportunity to create more parks and give back, regardless of your means … there’s no greater gift, great legacy.”

Click to play video: 'Decision looming for open-net fish farming'
Decision looming for open-net fish farming

Jan Gemmell, whose daughter Carly found the “weird little fish” later identified as the lamprey, said it’s a “really special” place that supports a “huge diversity of wildlife.”

Gael Arthur, who was on the board of the Comox Valley Land Trust in 2016 and 2017, said it wasn’t easy to protect the headwaters, given the cost. She helped secure 22 hectares in 2019 at an unprecedented price for their organization, before the massive fundraising campaign kicked off to buy the rest.

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“The community really, really came to the party,” she said Friday. “It brings tears to my eyes, thinking what we’ve been able to do as a little community … we all care about the environment.”

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