Skip to main content

Salmon fry are poured out of a hose into the Columbia River near Revelstoke, B.C.Photos by Okanagan Nation Alliance

In mid-May, a pickup truck drove to the shores of Nahounli Creek, a stream that feeds Stuart Lake and winds through the community of Fort St. James in northern B.C. In the bed of the truck was a large tub filled with about 1,000 salmon fry, barely 10 months old and smaller than a paperclip.

A crew of fish technicians carefully connected a large hose to the tub, and slowly the water and the tiny fish drained into the creek, where they will stay for a few months before migrating to the lake. Eventually, when they are big and strong enough, they will leave the lake and then swim down the tributaries of the Fraser River and into the Pacific Ocean.

If all goes as planned, a few years later some will return home, swimming the approximate 1,200 kilometres from the mouth of the Fraser back to Nahounli Creek. They will be fully grown and laden with eggs that will become the next generation of Early Stuart sockeye salmon.

Dan Stefanovic at the Hatchery.

The fry release was a test run for the hatchery crew at Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation. It was the first release since they set up a hatchery in September.

“It’s stressful,” said Pete Erickson, hatchery manager and hereditary chief at Nak’azdli Whut’en. “We’ve waited for this all year. And our crew is totally green. Only three of us have even looked after a goldfish.”

The hatchery at Nak’azdli is not a traditional operation. Instead of a multimillion-dollar, permanent Fisheries and Oceans Canada facility, the hatchery at Nak’azdli is a collection of shipping containers: a hatchery in a box.

“It’s plug and play,” said Mr. Erickson. “You plug in a hose on one side, and in the spring you dump your fish out in the creek.”

Though it’s not quite that simple, added Mr. Erickson. The process began last fall – nine to 10 months before release – when they collected spawning salmon eggs and milt. Fertilized eggs were then incubated and – when hatched – kept at the hatchery for nine months before they could be released.

“Our goal is to give the fish an advantage,” said Mr. Erickson, who noted that while less than 20 per cent of eggs laid in the wild survive, his hatchery boasts a 95-per-cent survival rate.

Survival rates are key. According to Mr. Erickson, his nation and neighbouring communities used to catch 85,000 fish a season – the number his people required to survive. Now the total number they can catch is 2,000.

“The bears don’t even recognize the river as a food source now,” said Mr. Erickson. “Normally the rivers are full of them, and now they don’t come.”

The hatchery in a box is a tool that can be used to tackle diminishing runs. And, when compared to a traditional, permanent hatchery, this tool is straightforward.

To start, it costs tens of thousands of dollars instead of multimillions, meaning that Indigenous bands can afford to fund their own operation, instead of waiting on Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In the case of Nak’azdli Whut’en, the hatchery is funded by Coastal GasLink owner TC Energy, which promised a five-year commitment in return for consent to operate on the band’s traditional territory.

The hatchery can also be set up quickly (sometimes as fast as four months), it can be built in remote locations, and it requires less staffing – just five fish technicians oversee the Nak’azdli operation. All of the technicians are Indigenous, encompassing members from seven communities across British Columbia.

“Now First Nations people can take everything in their own hands and they can start capacity-building,” said Dan Stefanovic, the operations biologist at Okanagan Nation Alliance – the tribal council that conceptualized the hatchery in a box in 2014.

Syilx nation drummers singing at the sockeye fry release.

The initiative was conceived as part of ONA’s Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative, an Indigenous-led and funded program that uses hatcheries, habitat and stream restoration to fight dwindling salmon runs.

Over the past decade, the program has delivered results. For example, according to Mr. Stefanovic, practically no fish returned to Skaha Lake in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley 20 years ago. Two years ago, 200,000 returned.

As a result of their success, ONA has drawn the attention of numerous communities across the country. So far, they have sold numerous hatcheries in a box to others across B.C.

Mr. Stefanovic said the key to being successful rests in empowering communities with the knowledge and expertise to respond to the fish scarcity themselves, rather than having to depend on Fisheries and Oceans Canada or to contract expensive biologists.

“It’s not really about the can [hatchery] itself, it’s ONA’s knowledge and expertise with aquaculture that helps support these other bands. To make sure they have the knowledge to pass this on and train their staff. To make sure they can bring their fish back.”

ONA also offers training sessions and invites bands to ceremonial releases throughout the year at key times in the fishery calendar.

Takla Lake First Nation, a remote 800-person community that neighbours Nak’azdli Whut’en, was also hoping to combat plummeting Fraser River sockeye numbers.

“Our Early Stuart sockeyes have been in decline for 30 years, and nobody has done anything about it,” said Keith West, fish and wildlife co-ordinator at the Takla nation. “We haven’t been able to fish salmon for 20 years.”

This year, Mr. West is planning to release 30,500 fry. But in future years he hopes to scale up to the hatchery capacity of 110,000 fish.

However, Mr. West knows that this will not be enough to bring the fish fully back.

“This is part of us gaining our control, and it is a good first step,” said Mr. West. “But 100,000 fry won’t bring back the species. Everything still needs to happen on a bigger scale.”

Mr. Stefanovic agreed.

“To solve fisheries you can’t just plop a hatchery down and start pumping out fish,” he said. “The fish need somewhere to come back to as adults. They need habitat, they need their creeks restored.”

Takla Lake First Nation is therefore also working on habitat and stream restoration, such as removing a culvert that limits spawning habitat.

But while the hatchery in a box is far from a perfect solution, it still feels like a step in the right direction for those involved.

To Mr. Erickson at Nak’azdli Whut’en, this was on display when he and elders travelled to the Okanagan for an ONA ceremonial fry release. They watched as the children participated in the release – carefully lifting the fry from the pools with cups and dropping them into the stream.

Mr. Erickson said he felt hopeful.

“We have a deal with the fish: We help them out and they provide our food. But we have to do our job. That’s part of the bargain we have,” said Mr. Erickson. “And to hell or high water we’re gonna be into this.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.