School of fish: a morning at Mossom Creek Hatchery

Founded by Centennial Secondary biology teachers, Mossom functions like an educational institution with a hatchery attached

You could miss it three times.

Drive too fast down Ioco Road and you roll right by.

Turn up the hill and, if you’re not paying attention, you might think you were trapped in a cul-de-sac.

Break out of the cul-de-sac (which wasn’t really a cul-de-sac) and you spend the next kilometre bumping up a gravel path.

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If you’re prone to self-doubt, you might find yourself wondering how to turn around and escape this road to nowhere when you see it.

Built (and rebuilt) on the site of a gravel pit, Mossom Creek Hatchery juts out of the hill like a sawed-off castle.

It’s a getaway from the city, in the city. An escape hatchery.

“I didn’t know a hatchery from a hole in the wall before I came up here,” Kevin Ryan says. “You learn on the job.”

Six years ago, Kevin Ryan retired from CP Rail. Today, he’s president of the Burrard Inlet Marine Enhancement Society and seems positively jovial as he leads me down a narrow trail that winds around the hatchery.

After six years on the job, Ryan considers himself a newcomer.

“I just started,” he says.

Branches bend back and fling rainwater at whoever’s last in line as we trek past wildlife cameras toward the creek. It’s a corridor for bear and deer, he notes.

“They can go all the way down to the inlet, pretty much untouched,” Ryan says.

The hatchery was founded in 1976 but the old building burned to the ground seven years ago, possibly as a result of animals chewing wires, he notes.

A slightly charred sign from the old hatchery rests on an easel.

The only remnant of the original hatchery remains on display.

“The only thing left,” he says.

“The firefighters pulled it off,” chimes hatchery co-founder Ruth Foster.

Fast-talking and energetic, Foster still seems very much the Centennial Secondary biology teacher. Had I been chewing gum, my instinct would’ve been to dispose of it as discreetly as possible.

You might find Foster along Ioco Road as she sorts through plants and pulls out invasive species, Ryan says.

During a tour of the hatchery, Foster leads me through plants that seem to be selected based on how implausible sounding they are.

She points out bleeding heart, bunchberry (closely related to dogwood), and Siberian miner’s lettuce (“It’s edible,” Ruth notes.)

Bunchberry and bleeding heart sprout up around the creek.

The plants are: “exactly native to this watershed,” Foster emphasizes.

Foster insists I take a deep whiff of something called stink currant, which actually has a lovely minty smell. The fragrance is an indicator of nitrogen rich soil, she explains

Belying it name, stink currant has a lovely, minty aroma.

“I think it’s like black currant jam,” Foster says. Later she points out a peanut butter plant and creates an olfactory PB&J.

Foster and her fellow Centennial biology teacher Rod MacVicar, however, have been there since the hatchery was an idea in the woods.

Asked about the initial idea for the hatchery, Foster talks about how she and co-founder MacVicar used to do all their teaching in a classroom.

“Both wanted to teach more outside than in,” she says.

For a moment, it appears Foster has more to say but then, as though guiding a student’s research project, she directs me to ask MacVicar.

Ask him the question, she instructs. “The very same question,” she advises. “You’ll get a totally different answer.”

The first thing MacVicar remembers is the water. It was cold and clear.

“There was nothing in it,” he says.

And so, like any self-respecting teacher who hates to see potential going to waste, MacVicar had an idea.

“Maybe it should have fish,” he says.

They went to work.

As best as they can tell, there was no catastrophic slide or spill that took the fish out of the creek. It likely had more to do with geography and hungry people following the path of least resistance, Foster, theorizes.

“They were just too darn easy to take home for dinner,” she says. “When we collect our stock for our eggs . . . you can pick them up by the tail.”

“We thought we could put fish back in this to a historic level and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why we couldn’t,” MacVicar says.

In the hatchery’s incubation room, there are stacks of trays with 5,000 chum eggs on each. A nearby tank houses a school of smolts that are weeks from release.

Foster and Ryan inspect the fish at feeding time.

“You can think globally about climate warming,” MacVicar says. “But really, you only make a difference where you live.”

The spread

Think of them as high-rolling tourists.

Salmon swim away and come back with millions of pounds nutrients from the sea, a bounty unevenly divided between bears and whales and the forest itself.

A recent study shows that B.C. chinook are suffering kidney and liver damage due to a virus that originated in salmon farms in Norway.

The study, undertaken by UBC and the Strategic Salmon Health Initiative, concluded the virus, piscine orthoreovirus, is “almost ubiquitous” in B.C. salmon farms.

While there has always been a possibility PRV would spread from farmed to wild fish, the study is an effort to understand “the probability and magnitude” of that transmission.


The closer wild chinook get to those farms, the likelier they are to be infected the virus piscine orthoreovirus.

Prevalence of the virus was “near zero” in fish that were collected at least 100 kilometres from aquacultures such as fish farms, according to the study. However, the authors stipulate that other factors such as different environmental conditions might also contribute to the prevalence of the disease.

Two roads, one destination

Using both genome sequencing and epidemiological methods, two groups of researchers came to the same conclusion, noted viral ecologist Gideon Mordecai.

“Salmon farms act as a source and amplifier of PRV transmission,” Mordecai stated in a press release.

The virus spread through the Atlantic Ocean about 30 years ago, according to the study. The timing coincides with salmon egg imports from Europe arriving in salmon farms in the northeast Pacific, according to the study.

A Norwegian study found that a Canadian isolate of the virus causes heart lesions in Atlantic salmon.

The study’s conclusions “are in contrast to the DFO’s assessment that PRV is not a disease agent,” according to the study.

“[The study] highlights the need for robust regulation of aquaculture that may prevent future losses in wild populations,” according to Mordecai.


A white papery belt is crisscrossed with bits of fish food is positioned over the fish tank.

The clock winds the belt and the food drops in sporadic drips and drabs.

The method ensures the fish don’t associate feeding time with that large visitor looming over the tank.

This would be a disadvantage in their next life as heron prey, MacVicar explains.

The water is kept at the same temperature as the creek. The colder the water, the slower they grow, Ryan explains.

Rod MacVicar keeps a close eye on tank temperatures at the hatchery.

After 22 days, they’re eyed eggs and vaguely resemble the sweet, squishy spheres at the bottom of a bubble tea. At 100 days they look like toy fish.

When an egg dies, there is a risk it will get mouldy and spread its growth to its 5,000 neighbours.

Some hatcheries treat the mould with salt or a fungicide like malachite green. A fungicide will work, MacVicar says. The trouble is that it doesn’t stop working.

Once the fish are released the fungicide comes along for the ride, attacking fungus and bacteria in the creek.

“What can we do? We don’t want to use chemicals,” MacVicar says.

Ultimately, the hatchery takes a Nancy Reagan approach to fungicide.

“Say no to drugs,” MacVicar says. “Every time you use a drug you get a side effect.”

That approach was put to the test when a spate of kidney disease spread through the hatchery.

“We decided not to treat them heavily with antibiotics and let those that are susceptible die,” he says, noting they haven’t had a similar rash of disease since.

“You use antibiotics . . . and then you’re stuck with them.”

MacVicar has been tending to the creek since 1976.

The topic of antibiotics, like virtually everything else at the hatchery, is seen as a teaching opportunity.

Math comes up in the context of temperatures and survival rates. Biology is the topic when they discuss selecting fish.

“They talk about sex and they talk about everything . . . but it’s in context.”

Fish ed.

With school trips on hold due to the pandemic, Mossom has been welcoming small groups of home-schooled children.

One a Tuesday morning five kids study trays of creek water to see how many different creatures they can find.

Invertebrates are biological indicators, explains instructor Shelley Frick.

And if they can find stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies?

“That means, yay! We have a clean, clear, unpolluted stream,” she cheers.

A student scours her tray for invertebrates during a recent trip to the hatchery.

Briefly, MacVicar switches subjects to poetry.

Mayflies, he notes, are Ephemeroptera.

“One night, they come out and they fly in mass, they make love and they die,” he says.

Later, he reads from a book of poetry about the mayflies and their “particle of time.”

The overriding philosophy seems to be that the building at the top of the gravel road is a school with a hatchery attached.

“We’re raising kids, not fish,” MacVicar says.

Foster’s philosophy, which is written in big letters inside the hatchery, reads: You Only Care About What You Know About.

“The more you know about a watershed and the creatures that live in it . . . the more you’re going to care about it. The better decisions you’re going to make as a citizen,” Foster says.

A steward since she was 10, Aniela Guzikowski is campaigning to keep cigarette butts out of the water.

As if on cue, a young salmon steward turns from her microscope and Foster introduces Aniela Guzikowski.

At 12, in a bid to keep cigarette butts out of seabird stomachs, Guzikowski initiated a petition calling for Canada to ban plastic cigarette filters.

Since then, she’s given a TED talk on the subject and championed a reusable pocket ashtray.

“Mossom, really, it’s just home,” she says.

It’s been that way since she was a 10-year-old standing in the stream and monitoring oxygen levels as fry were being released, recalls her mother Vicki.

It’s a free forest, university, Vicki says.

“You’re building the next stewards.”

Out of sight

For Ryan, the creek is where he finds his peace of mind. Still, he says there are things that keep him up at night.

Pointing to the spots where the water swells and bubbles, he notes how tenuous the health of a creek can be.

“Every time there’s a development somewhere this water will turn brow,” he says. “I’m not saying no development but I’m saying be careful.”

Noons Creek, according to Ryan, is substantially warmer – which is one of the reasons the fish have a far higher mortality rate, he explains.

“Not to pick on Noons, but Noons is a good example of where development has gone too close to the creeks.”

Port Moody owns land at 1440 Ioco Road. The parcel is zoned for single and semi-detached residential, but Ryan is hoping the municipality will consider turning it into a park as a way to bring people a little closer to Mossom.

As much as he loves the way the city disappears at the hatchery, there is a fear the public will forget what’s just off Ioco Road, through the faux cul-de-sac and up the gravel path.

The seclusion protects the creek, Ryan acknowledges.

“But it also prevents the public from seeing the beauty of the creek.”

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