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As fish return to B.C.’s rivers to spawn, volunteers take stock of a population under increasing stress from fishing and a changing environment. Here’s how it’s done

Salmon rest in an eddy of Vancouver Island's Goldstream River during the fall run. Volunteers have come here to count the fish as they return to the river to spawn.Photography by James MacDonald/The Globe and Mail

Ice-cold water streams past our ankles as we make our way gingerly down the embankment and along the river. Above us, trucks and cars speed down the Malahat Highway on their way up island from Victoria.

Unfazed by the chaos, and only mildly perturbed by the presence of sloshing human feet, salmon shoot past us as they swim upstream, barrelling against the freezing current. The fish, often with partners in tow, pause in river eddies only to suddenly move again, searching for just the right spot on the river bed to spawn.

The river walkers I’m among this morning are here to count fish. They are with the Goldstream Volunteer Salmonid Enhancement Association, and tasked with assessing the number of returning salmon to determine the health of the river and fishery for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This is an increasingly important question to answer, as salmon stocks and population numbers along the coast of British Columbia are coming under increasing stress.

“There is no simple single story about salmon,” says Jason Hwang, vice-president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation. “There are five different species of salmon, plus steelhead … [and] there are hundreds and hundreds of streams that they spawn in, so the story is going to be variable and different.”

Here on southern Vancouver Island, the salmon story is as complex and tangled as anywhere in B.C., with fish populations connected to the success of the southern resident orcas, which are connected to the tourism industry, which also relies on healthy stocks for sport fishing operators, who in turn need to balance their takes with the needs of commercial fishing. “Some populations are doing reasonably well,” Mr. Hwang says, “but there are other populations that are showing some declines in recent years. They are not recovering as well as the long term cycles would suggest.”

The coastal First Nations have also witnessed salmon populations struggle. “It is not in balance anymore. … I know the peninsula, and I know the state that the fishery used to be,” says Carl Olson, an elder from the Tsartlip Nation on the Saanich Peninsula. “We feel like we have been left with the responsibility of conservation, to maintain that balance.”

Operations such as the Goldstream Hatchery are trying to help. Its volunteers work to harvest and fertilize as many viable eggs as possible, producing an 80-per-cent to 90-per-cent return, as opposed to a rate of 15 per cent to 50 per cent in the wild. They do so by carefully removing the eggs, manually fertilizing them with the male milt, then monitoring and assisting the growth of the embryo into the fry, or baby salmon. At that point they are placed in larger rearing tanks. After 18 months at the hatchery the fish are now smolts, having physically changed in preparation for salt water. Once that happens they are released back into the river to make their way to the open ocean.

“That is why I am involved with the hatchery – to see if it is something that can help,” Mr. Olson says. “We can start building the numbers back up in the streams.”

At the Goldstream Hatchery, wild salmon are harvested from the river for an egg take and fertilization. On average, each female has 2,000 eggs, and this egg take will yield 18,000. In the wild, the eggs' fertilization success rate is about 15 to 50 per cent, but in the hatchery it's 80 to 90 per cent, which helps to replenish stocks that have had smaller and smaller returns in recent years. Elder Carl Olson of the Tsartlip Nation, bottom right, has come to the hatchery to help with the conservation of fish stocks that his nation and others depend on.

The kelp beds of Vancouver Island's south shore, like the one shown at top, are a vital part of the Salish Sea ecosystem. Baby salmon, called fry, will make their home in these beds once they return to the ocean. Here, researchers Maria Catanzaro and Sarah Schroeder collect spore samples from the kelp as part of a project to ensure the plants' good health.

Ben Olson, top, is one of the stream walkers contracted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to count the salmon in the river. This year, the fish have a new way to get up the river's more impassable parts: The Millstream fish ladder, shown at bottom left with Ian Bruce, executive co-ordinator of the Peninsula Streams Society. After the salmon's run is over, their carcasses, like the one at bottom right, provide food for birds and scavengers, and return nutrients to the ecosystem from the open Pacific.

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