Could a Christmas tree find a second job? Yes, as it matter of fact it can. Every year in late December, early January and, in some cases, as late as February, certain researchers, environmental groups and wildlife agencies in North America begin sinking Christmas trees in lakes and ocean waters in the hopes of creating habitat for various types of fish.
Careful What You Fish For
In Port Moody, British Columbia, Rod MacVicar, retired biology teacher and naturalist, has been doing this since at least 2007. He hangs weighted Christmas trees and branches from his seapen float in the Burrard Inlet with the idea of providing a place for herring to spawn.
Herring eggs are commonly referred to as “roe” and, traditionally, herring roe are gathered by BC’s First Nations people by using hemlock branches, seaweed or kelp. Once the herring roe can be seen on the branches, they are hung up to dry and then eaten. Herring roe are considered nutritious and are part of an important fishery for many BC coastal communities. Knowing this, MacVicar expected that these trees would be most likely to harbor herring roe. MacVicar has monitored the kinds of life that use the Christmas trees over the years and made some unexpected discoveries.
Within just a few months, MacVicar found an abundance of life on the branches, but did not find any herring spawn. In 2013, while MacVicar was checking his sunken treasure, he found a female Slimy Snailfish (Liparis mucosus) guarding the eggs that were visible on the evergreens. MacVicar has spent his entire life on the beaches and intertidal zones of the BC coast and has never seen a snailfish. MacVicar says, “you would expect that having spent so much time on the water, combing through plankton nets with students and really taking an interest in sea life, that I would be familiar with most of what can be found in my area.” Interestingly though, the snailfish is a rare find. It is not well-described in scientific literature and is a delicate little creature that falls apart just hours after being out of water. (Scientists require numerous undamaged specimens in order to describe and catalogue them properly and the few specimens now present in university collections were obtained in the shallow or intertidal waters off Stanley Park, Vancouver.) MacVicar says this is a good example of how many unknowns there are in regards to living creatures in the ocean. He only found this unusual snailfish because of the underwater Christmas tree project.
Most years, the usual occupants of the sunken Christmas trees in Port Moody are amber-coloured Sailfin Sculpin (Nautichthys oculofasciatus) eggs. These eggs attach to the branches during the spring providing a colourful example of the life that can be harboured in a tree.
In Savannah, Georgia, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Hartwell and Thurmond Lake Project Offices will be accepting natural Christmas trees for recycling from December 26th to February 15, 2015 (see here for the specific details). These “recycled” trees will be used as fish attractors at both sites. The plan is to bundle up the trees, weigh them down with concrete anchors and submerge them in locations that are marked with buoys. The goal of this project is to improve fishing habitat in the area. “Small trees and brush provide cover for fish, particularly as nursery areas for juvenile fish,” said Corps park ranger, Jess Fleming. Fleming also said that these trees can also offer habitat for aquatic insects, which serve as essential food sources for fish during the early states of growth of most species. It is requested that anyone wanting to participate in this project must remove all trimmings, ornaments, tinsel, lights and garland before the tree can be used. And, of course, dumping Christmas trees, wireframe wreaths, yard debris, and household trash in the main lake channels or around private docks is strictly prohibited. (For more information or to volunteer, contact the Hartwell Lake Project Office at 888-893-0678 888-893-067800-533-3478 or the Thurmond Office at 800-533-3478.)
Collecting Used Trees for Fish
A Christmas tree drop-off location has been set up for the Miles City chapter of Walleyes Unlimited and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks at Spotted Eagle. Montana residents can do their part to improve their local fishery by participating in this project. Just like the other projects mentioned above, the trees will be used to provide hiding cover and nesting cover for some juvenile and adult fish species. Fisheries Biologist, Caleb Bollman, says, “This Christmas tree project has been an ongoing activity at Spotted Eagle and we see the fish using the structure when we conduct electro fishing surveys.” (For more information about the project or tree donation, contact Kevin McKoy, Region 7 Fisheries Technician, at 234-0915 or email@example.com or Caleb Bollman at 234-0914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Turning Your Christmas Tree into an Underwater Ecosystem
How can you get involved? Well, in addition to the Montana project listed above, there are other similar projects in Kentucky (see the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources here), in South Carolina here, in West Virginia here, or enquire with your local fisheries and wildlife agency.
Jane Dunne is a Senior Editor at Specialty Technical Publishers and she is currently working on an update to Directors' Liability in Canada, which defines impairment of fish habitat under the Fisheries Act in Canada.