The Christmas trees of Burrard Inlet: Underwater forest becomes a home for sea life

Tree time: Mossom Creek co-founder Rod MacVicar has been dunking trees for the past decade. photos supplied Paul Steeves

How do you get people interested in nature?

It’s a question Mossom Creek Fish Hatchery co-founder Rod MacVicar often ponders. It seems, in part, he has an answer: show them a whole new world.

For the past 10 years, MacVicar has been sinking Christmas trees in Burrard Inlet. Most of the magic happens when they pull up the trees of Christmas past to see just who moved in.


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“We find eel-like fish, we find rare fish, we find all sorts of things,” he says. “You just don’t realize what’s there until you actually get to try it.”

A retired sea captain, MacVicar first got the idea to sink trees for science while boating in Alaska. There, he saw plenty of trees in the water, as well as kelp and other aquatic vegetation, all covered in herring roe.

“We’re trying to encourage herring here,” he thought of his home in Port Moody and the Burrard Inlet. “So why not try it here?”

The practice of using trees during the herring spawn has been going on for ages. Coastal Indigenous peoples would submerge red cedar, Western hemlock and Sitka spruce in places herring were likely to spawn. They would harvest roe from the vegetation.

But wild herring populations have faltered and are only now seeing recovery in some areas.

Back in Port Moody, light on wild trees, MacVicar considered using live Christmas trees once the gifts are opened and the ornaments are tucked into boxes for another year. He’s been sinking at least one tree per year for the last decade.

MacVicar tries to use natural materials like hemp rope to help the trees stay underwater.

“We’ve seen trees that I’ve had them off the dock and probably the rope that suspends them will rot much before the trunk will, so we’ll take them and maybe put them in the intertidal [zone] near Ioco,” he says.

The trees may spend five years in the intertidal zone before they disappear.

“There’s still always a central trunk left for a little while. Obviously, the needles are gone in a year or so, then the little branches in a couple of years and eventually the trunk, but it’s very biodegradable.”

That’s not to say everyone should be chucking their Christmas trees into water as a way to dispose of them come the new year. But there are a few places across the States that solicit trees to add to aquatic environments for fish habitat, such as the forest service in Ohio’s Wayne National Forest.

During a Sunday volunteer day at Mossom Creek Fish Hatchery a few weeks ago, MacVicar gathered a group of volunteers together to head out onto the inlet to not only sink a new specimen, but to check on a previous sunken tree.

“We found all sorts of interesting creatures in it,” says MacVicar, “and these people hadn’t seen them. They weren’t quite aware that all these creatures live in the inner harbour of Vancouver harbour or Port Moody inlet.”

Animals observed on the tree include sponges, herring roe, and a consortium of immature dungeness crabs, as well as what MacVicar describes as “unusual little crustaceans.”

“They look like sea-monkeys, they have almost praying mantis-like jaws and limbs,” he says. “They behave in a peculiar way. They sort of dance and interact with each other… and you wouldn’t think these little creatures are out there.”

Helping people see the wildlife in their own backyard can aid in spurring them into making local efforts to protect the environment.

“You only care about what you know about, and if you didn’t know that any of that existed, how could you care about water quality?” says MacVicar. “It’s the heart of Port Moody — Port Moody harbour — and it’s full of wildlife and this just lets people see all that living stuff there so anything that goes into the creeks or into the sewer or whatever will come down into the water where these living things are so we don’t just try to keep our sewers and runoff water clean for no reason. It’s to protect all life that’s there.”

After exploring the creatures in the branches, the tree is returned beneath the water’s surface to continue its process of decay and to continue its new role in the ecosystem.

For MacVicar, it’s another way to get citizens engaged.

“It’s as much about people and getting involved with their role and looking after nature. They’re not helpless,” he says. “You think globally about the disasters of the world, but really, you only make a difference on the things that you do where you live.”

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