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George Elliot students take ownership of important Kokanee stream in Lake Country

George Elliot students Harman Brar and David Robertson show the design of the kokanee they will paint near Lake Country storm drains that are close to Middle Vernon Creek, an important kokanee salmon spawning stream. - Kevin Parnell
George Elliot students Harman Brar and David Robertson show the design of the kokanee they will paint near Lake Country storm drains that are close to Middle Vernon Creek, an important kokanee salmon spawning stream.
— image credit: Kevin Parnell

Three years ago, when Lake Country student Harman Brar took part in a project to count spawning kokanee salmon in Middle Vernon Creek, the results were incredible.

Spawning kokanee by the hundreds splashed around in the creek while hundreds of other lay dead after spawning and completing their life cycle.

Around every turn there were more kokanee and the project put the spotlight on the health of the kokanee at that time and the importance of Middle Vernon Creek as a spawning stream for Wood Lake kokanee.

So when Brar, now in Grade 11, returned to the stream this year with his environmental studies class, he was expecting to see about the same results. But the kokanee weren't there.

"Back when we did that project there were hundreds, both dead and alive, but now when we checked there were maybe eight of them," said Brar, outside of George Elliot school, near Middle Vernon Creek. "We don't know exactly why the kokanee aren't there, but one of the reasons could be the pollutants that get into the stream."

So back inside George Elliot, Brar and his class-mates decided to embark on a project to see if they could help kokanee as well as raise awareness about the importance of the stream that at times is littered with garbage. The group is planning to paint nearby storm drains with a picture of a kokanee, reminding people that anything that makes its way into the drain, will also eventually make it into Middle Vernon Creek. They also plan on planting mycelium fungus near the stream in order to use its natural ability to act as a filter and keep harmful chemicals out of the stream.

"There is lots of junk in the river and lots of chemicals that make their way into the stream from the highway and from the roads," said Brar. "That's why we want to plant the mycelium. The paintings by the storm drains are to spread awareness of what's happening. If people see the fish they might start to wonder."

After initially coming up with the idea, Brar approached the District of Lake Country to get approval for the project. It took awhile before he heard back and was even considering moving on, until the project picked up momentum late last week.

Harman also brought his friend David Robertson on board and together with the other members of their environmental studies group, the project will get going over the next several weeks.

Robertson said they didn't recognize how bad the kokanee problem was and the project has taken on even more importance.

"When Harman brought it to me and we went to the stream you start to realize it's a problem," he said. "There just wasn't any kokanee. It will be good to see the numbers of kokanee go up in the future but we have to start raising awareness now about what's happened."

The GESS students have put their project before the Oceola Fish and Game club, who have been working on improving the kokanee stocks. Spokesperson Rick Simpson applauded the youth for their efforts and said every little bit helps.

"There is no single smoking gun for the Wood Lake kokanee population crash," he wrote in an email to the students. "however, non-point and point pollution in Wood Lake are thought to be among the contributing factors to the decline. The attention to what goes down our storm drains is practical and helpful in raising awareness and perhaps, in the longer term, changing attitudes and behaviour."

So for the two students that was enough to get them going on what started out as a school project but which has the potential to be so much more.

"It feels good that we have got a lot of response," said Brar. "Hopefully this spreads awareness for the next generation of students coming up and they can keep working on it."

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