Terrifyingly low returns have the West Coast’s unheralded Chum salmon population finally receiving a much-needed shot in the enhancement spotlight.
“We’ve never enhanced Chum before and, to tell you the truth, I never thought I’d see this day,” Tofino Hatchery manager Doug Palfrey told the Westerly News.
The hatchery has traditionally focused its efforts on Coho and Chinook, but Palfrey explained that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is putting a keen focus on Chum this fall due to the species’ dismal forecasts in Clayoquot Sound.
“These are systems that used to have 200-600 Chum in them and they’ve just become extinct,” he said.
The hatchery recently launched a new project designed to boost Chum populations by collecting roughly 45,000 chum eggs from Clayoquot Sound’s Tranquil Creek, which will be reared at the hatchery and released into two struggling streams on Meares Island in the spring.
Palfrey said there are eight Chum bearing streams on Meares Island.
“Unfortunately, most of them are in pretty rough shape and these are beautiful pristine systems,” he said. “It’s just that, over the years, the Chum runs have been deteriorating…It’s great habitat, there’s certainly no [habitat] restoration needed, it just needs a little bump up to reintroduce these Chum stocks.”
He added the work was made possible thanks to the help of two local youth, Ethan Stere and Phoenix Greig, who are in their third year of volunteering with the hatchery.
“It’s their project. They’ve done all the Chum egg takes, they’ve done all the fish culture activities to date and they will be doing the ponding, the feeding and the sampling…It’s tremendous. They are ultra keen and they are so looking forward to rebuilding the chum stock,” he said of the young volunteers who are each earning valuable local knowledge of salmon systems and habitats. “It’s really great to be able to teach them and down the road hopefully one or both of them will be working here.”
He said Tranquil Creek is about an hour-long boat ride away, followed by a roughly 10-kilometre drive to an abandoned logging camp with equipment in tow.
“It ends up being a 10-12 hour day quite easily,” he said.
He said the team searched for the eggs they needed in October and brought those eggs back to Tofino to be reared at the hatchery.
The eggs are currently in the eyed-stage and are expected to hatch in February.
“They actually break out of the egg and they become alevins and at that point they live on their yolk sack, that’s their food source,” he said.
Once they’ve consumed their sack, the young fish will then be ready to be fed for about two months before being released and should be ready to be released in May, according to Palfrey who said the salmon will be released into two streams on Meares Island.
“We’ll start to see the returns in four years, so it’s a bit like an RRSP maturing where you’ve got to wait that time length to see the results,” he said.
He said Chum are an important part of the ecosystem, but are often overlooked due to the popularity of Coho and Chinook.
“They’re a really important part of the overall ecology of the stream. They’re real gravel cleaners and when they hatch out, they provide a lot of feed for the outgoing Coho smolts that have spent a year in that system. They’re quite a food source for everything really. Bears very much rely on the Chum populations to fatten up for their winter’s sleep,” he said. “There’s well over 100 predators that feed on them in their whole life cycle. So they have a really tough road ahead of them and for us to be able to reintroduce them to these streams on Meares Island is a great opportunity.”
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