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Carol Schmitt inspects salmon in tanks at the Omega Pacific Hatchery on Vancouver Island’s Great Central Lake, near Port Alberni, B.C. Ms. Schmitt and her business partner, Bruce Kenny, say their hatchery model would greatly assist B.C.’s salmon fishery. (Simon Hayter/Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail)
Carol Schmitt inspects salmon in tanks at the Omega Pacific Hatchery on Vancouver Island’s Great Central Lake, near Port Alberni, B.C. Ms. Schmitt and her business partner, Bruce Kenny, say their hatchery model would greatly assist B.C.’s salmon fishery. (Simon Hayter/Simon Hayter for The Globe and Mail)

Fish stocks

Hatching a plan to solve B.C.'s salmon crisis Add to ...

The federal government's fight to save the West Coast's dwindling salmon stocks is run from a glistening 18-storey office tower in the heart of Vancouver's financial district, where, despite a $250-million budget and the best work of more than 2,000 employees, the battle is being lost.

On the shores of Vancouver Island's Great Central Lake, in a clearing they hacked out of the forest by hand, Bruce Kenny and Carol Schmitt think they know why British Columbia is losing that fight and is having some of its worst salmon returns in history.

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And they say they know how to fix it: by adopting a model perfected by the aquaculture industry, which has learned to grow its young fish more slowly during the first year. The approach relies on producing fewer, but healthier, salmon that have a vastly improved chance of surviving in the ocean environment.

"We truly believe the first brick in the wall was wrong when DFO built its hatchery program. We should correct this," said Mr. Kenny, commenting on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans 32-year-old strategy for bringing back salmon runs.

DFO's Pacific Region has many responsibilities, but the protection of B.C.'s salmon resource is paramount. In recognition of that, DFO launched a special hatchery-based project in 1977, known as the Salmonid Enhancement Program. SEP's goal: to double B.C.'s salmon stocks.

SEP releases more than 400 million juvenile salmon each year, from 23 major and about 300 small hatcheries. It has an annual budget of about $26-million and is supported by 10,000 community volunteers. It has had some tremendous successes (as recently as 1996, SEP helped boost the Skeena River sockeye runs to record levels), but the trend for B.C. has been steadily downward for most of the decade.

The crisis was brought into sharp focus on the Fraser River this fall, when the sockeye run collapsed so completely that on Thursday Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a judicial inquiry to find out what went wrong.

But the problem is bigger than the Fraser. It is coast-wide and it raises the question: Why has B.C.'s salmon catch fallen from over 30,000 tonnes in 1998 to only 5,000 tonnes last year?

Many blame the ocean, saying shifts in temperature and nutrient levels have resulted in extreme mortality rates.

But according to Mr. Kenny, who with his business partner, Ms. Schmitt, runs a private hatchery, a big part of the problem is that DFO's enhancement program is out of sync with nature.

"Look at it this way," Ms. Schmitt said as she fussed over trays of salmon eggs at the Omega Pacific Hatchery, near Port Alberni. "When DFO releases its smolts in the spring, 60 per cent will be dead within four months. That's not good."

Mr. Kenny lives over the Omega hatchery incubation room, where he wakes to the sound of 1,200 gallons a minute of cold mountain water running through tanks that contain tens of thousands of tiny chinook salmon eggs. He and Ms. Schmitt, whose home is next door, live and breathe salmon, and they learned the hard way about the challenges fish face.

"If there's one thing I don't ever want to see again, it's a dead salmon," Mr. Kenny said.

When he and Ms. Schmitt began their hatchery 30 years ago, growing small salmon for the fish-farming industry then just emerging on the West Coast, they regularly experienced horrific die-offs when smolts were moved from freshwater tanks to ocean pens.

They were working with chinook eggs provided by a DFO facility and were producing fish the same way SEP was. They moved the young fish from fresh to saltwater when they were about eight months old - at a stage known as S-0, for smolts-zero.

But unlike DFO, which loses track of its smolts once they are released, Omega kept all its fish in pens - and they got to see what happened next.

Ms. Schmitt, who keeps the eggs from each female in separate numbered trays, so she can identify the individual mothers, said several months after being transplanted to saltwater, fish began to die.

Vibriosis, a prevalent fish disease that causes blood and skin infections and bacterial kidney disease, swept through their crop.

They struggled with the problem for years - knowing that if they didn't solve it, their business would be as dead as the fish floating belly up in their pens. Ms. Schmitt says the disease outbreaks were telling them something was wrong with their fish culture methods. But what?

"We had to figure this out," Mr. Kenny said.

And eventually they did.

"By the late eighties a few of the forward-thinking growers experimented with a concept which turned out to be the biggest single breakthrough for industry to date," Mr. Kenny said in a letter to the government.

"We grew the fish for an additional year in the freshwater hatchery until they reached 50 grams or more. This single change resulted in a more immune-competent, disease-resistant fish; one that is better prepared to adjust from fresh to saltwater, spends less time in the estuary, is less affected by predators such as mackerel, and is large enough to access available feed. This yearling fish is known as an S-1 smolt."

It is a model, he says, that the fish-farming industry quickly adopted.

"Had industry not gone from S-0 to S-1, there would be no industry," he said. "We've spent a lifetime dissecting and analyzing and moving the parts of the puzzle around. And we've learned."

Ms. Schmitt, who has worked in a DFO hatchery, says the government grows its fish too fast.

"They bring the eggs into a warm hatchery and they trigger them. A fish that would grow really slowly in nature is doubling in weight every week. … They aren't doing that in nature. It's the increased water temperature, the increased nutrients [in fish food] It triggers smoltification. It tricks them. They go to the ocean and they aren't ready for it," she said.

Mr. Kenny and Ms. Schmitt say they have been urging DFO to adopt the private-industry approach - which boasts a 96-per-cent survival rate from smolt to adult, compared to DFO's rate of 1 per cent to 10 per cent. Omega has proposed raising S-1 chinook for three river systems on Vancouver Island on a trial basis. It wants to prove its model with a seven-year, $4.6-million project, jointly funded by private and public sources.

At DFO headquarters in downtown Vancouver, SEP director Greg Savard, a soft-spoken, silver-haired DFO veteran, says his department is open to new ideas as it struggles to deal with an ocean survival problem that has afflicted both enhanced and wild stocks.

But he's not rushing into anything.

"We're doing more thinking just on the timing of the release of fish," he said. "Some people want us to experiment by holding [fish]longer … but some of the data suggests that's not always good. In some places we've done research and it indicates that the fish might be bigger when you hold on them to for a year before release, but they come back earlier.…so you are actually getting fish returning earlier and they are smaller."

But he says poor salmon runs in B.C. reflect a larger ecosystem problem, not a flaw in the SEP approach. He says B.C.'s salmon stocks won't rebound until ocean conditions improve, but SEP is looking for more effective ways to operate.

"We are searching for answers," Mr. Savard said. "If we could do something different that would improve the returns and the productivity of the stocks, we are interested in understanding what that would look like."

What it looks like to Mr. Kenny and Ms. Schmitt is simple - it's the model private enterprise built.

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