Wendy Lane slits open the belly of a coho salmon with a practised swipe of her blade, spilling about 2,000 fiery orange eggs into a stainless steel bowl. A crew of volunteers fertilize, wash and settle the fragile eggs in their artificial nest. They’ll be tended for 18 months until, as young fish, they are ready to be released back into Goldstream River to make their way to the Pacific Ocean.
Restoring British Columbia’s declining salmon stocks has fallen in large measure upon the shoulders of volunteers such as Ms. Lane. She is part of a crew of more than 90 regulars at the Howard English Hatchery near Victoria. In British Columbia and Yukon, there are an estimated 30,000 volunteers working to boost salmon populations.
But that reliance on a system built almost entirely on free labour and donations could change in the New Year.
The Chinook salmon – critical to the survival of the southern resident killer whales – are on the cusp of being listed under the Species at Risk Act, and now the federal government is now looking at increasing hatchery production in 2019.
This fall was the first time that the Howard English Hatchery has been permitted to collect Chinook eggs for Goldstream. Biologist Peter McCully, a long-time technical advisor to the hatchery, noted that of the few Chinook that returned to the river this year, there was only a single female bearing eggs. It was a devastating result, and now so much rests on her offspring.
“These eggs will be given the kid glove treatment,” he said.
The Chinook are the king of salmon, prized by fishermen and key to the survival of the southern resident killer whales. With Ottawa promising to protect the endangered whales, the decline of the Chinook is capturing the attention of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recently assessed half of the 16 populations of Chinook Salmon as endangered and most are at least listed as “at risk.”
Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, has promised a $60-million fund for the southern resident killer whales, including money to rebuild and protect Chinook stocks.
His spokesperson Jocelyn Lubczuk said those investments will start rolling out in the coming year. DFO “will be identifying if and how we can strategically increase Chinook hatchery production starting in 2019,” she said in a statement.
The salmon hatchery at Goldstream is devoted to coho and chum salmon. Ms. Lane, who has been volunteering at the hatchery for a decade, has practised every role, from egg-taking and feeding the juvenile fish raised in large outdoor tanks, to the stream walk, where she keeps an eye out for bears as she counts the fish in the river.
Ian Izard has been a weekly volunteer for four years. In the life cycle of the salmon, that’s long enough to see the fish he helped raise return to the spawning grounds as mature fish.
This year has been a good one for chum salmon in Goldstream – their numbers are about four times higher than the average – he noted as he visited the counting fence on the river. This is where, earlier in the fall, the crew waded into the river to capture returning salmon for the breeding program.
During a visit to the river in December, there are few fish left, just skeletons and some optimistic scavengers. Towering fir and cedar trees line the banks of Goldstream River, enriched by generations of salmon that died here after spawning. A bald eagle watched from a moss-laden branch above the river.
“I always enjoyed fishing,” Mr. Izard said. “I want to see them multiply."
He’s a retired lawyer and his fellow volunteers include a brewery executive, a professor, an engineer and a ship’s captain. They are united by a passion for saving salmon, and there is no more tangible way to do that than to raise them by the thousands.
The Goldstream hatchery began as a one-man volunteer project in the 1970s with a single gravel incubation box, and today it operates a broad education program for local schools and provides stock assessment research for DFO. This year, the group will raise about 600,000 salmon eggs.
The hatchery has the capacity to raise one million if DFO would allow it. Raising fish in a hatchery vastly improves the odds of survival compared to eggs laid in the riverbed. But there is concern that hatchery-raised fish are not as robust or genetically diverse as wild salmon, which could weaken the wild stock.
Mr. McCully said the role of hatcheries has to be just one part of salmon restoration. Management of commercial and recreational fisheries is another, significant, issue. But if DFO wants to boost Chinook stocks, B.C.'s hatcheries could use their help, he said.
“A little more money. Some tech support. And, a little recognition of what we do,” he said. “We are swimming upstream here.”