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mark hume

Carol Schmitt released 48,000 Chinook smolts into the Sarita River in 2011, and is beginning to see them return.Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

It will be a year before Carol Schmitt knows if her really big experiment with salmon has worked, but preliminary results that came early this winter are pointing to success.

"Phenomenal," is the word Ms. Schmitt uses to describe the early returns she is seeing on the Sarita River, on Vancouver Island.

As the co-owner of Omega Pacific Hatchery, near Port Alberni, Ms. Schmitt has been growing salmon for the fish-farming industry for 34 years. During that time, she figures the company has spawned more than 10,000 adult Chinook and reared more than 30 million juveniles from eggs.

Along the way, she became convinced the best way to grow young Chinook salmon is to mimic nature by raising them in colder water, for longer and feeding them less than the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) does in its federally run hatcheries.

Now she's testing that theory in the wild.

She calls her slow grown fish S-1's, because they aren't released into the ocean until they are smolts more than one year old. By contrast, DFO grows S-O's, or smolt zeros, which are less than one year old. They're released typically at eight months of age.

Ms. Schmitt's theory is that S-1's, with which she's had great success in fish farms, will survive better in the ocean because they are more like wild fish, and therefore hardier than DFO's hatchery product. One recent study by Richard Beamish, a leading fisheries researcher with DFO before his retirement, found that wild smolts in the Cowichan River had a 3.6-per-cent survival rate to adulthood, compared to hatchery fish, of which only .08 per cent survived.

In 2011, DFO gave Ms. Schmitt a chance to see if her theory would work and she was allowed to release 48,000 S-1 Chinook smolts into the Sarita River. The bulk of those fish aren't due back until fall 2014, when they will be four years old, but a small percentage of fish came back one year early. Such early returns generally signal a big run is coming.

"This fall, adult returns from our Sarita group saw over 300 marked Chinook,"said Ms. Schmitt. Extrapolating those numbers, she said, her experiment should see 500 to 600 Chinook next year, followed by 300 in 2015, when a small percentage is expected to return as five-year-olds. The total over three years, if she gets the expected returns, will rival the survival rate of wild fish.

"These results are phenomenal, extremely important and what we expected," she said.

Ms. Schmitt said DFO releases between 400,000 and 500,000 S-0 Chinook in the Sarita every year, so it will be able to make a direct comparison in survival rates with the S-1's.

"So our measly 48,000 is translating to 10 to 15 times the returns [that DFO's hatchery got]," she said.

Ms. Schmitt said one exciting aspect of the experiment is that while S-0 fish rarely return as five-year-olds, the S1's will produce a small percentage of such fish.

"We will see in 2015 some returns too," she predicted. "And I'm hoping those fish will be our big, big Tyee." Tyee are Chinook that weigh more than 30 pounds and although once fairly common, they have become increasingly rare on the B.C. coast. As a result, sports angling resorts, such as Campbell River, have lost the trophy catches that once made them globally known angling destinations.

Ms. Schmitt said there is still resistance to her program within the ranks of DFO hatchery operators, but she's hoping the Sarita results will be strong enough to win over even her most skeptical critics. She should find out in a few weeks when DFO will consider her proposals to do more S-1 Chinook releases in more rivers next year.

"It would be great if we could do one or two 50,000 fish groups for two streams entering Georgia Strait and for two streams on the West Coast of Vancouver Island," she said.

"Let me do a stream that needs some numbers back," said Ms. Schmitt, promising big results.