Ucluelet’s Thornton Creek Hatchery welcomed the West Coast to its annual Adopt A Baby Salmon Day last weekend where thousands of chinook fry were released into the wild.
“Adopt A Baby Salmon Day is important because we’re getting the whole community involved with salmon enhancement and stewardship of this very important animal,” hatchery manager Dave Hurwitz said at the June 2 event. “If you look at the demographic that we have here today, there’s really a lot of young people here that are not on computers and they’re not playing video games; they’re enjoying nature and they’re helping to ensure that this iconic species will be around when they grow up.”
Hurwitz said the young fish were reared at the hatchery over the winter using a new approach designed to improve their survival rate by better preparing them to be wild. He credited Nitinat Hatchery manager Rob Brouwer for experimenting with various rearing strategies, including lower densities and more natural environments, that led to smarter and better prepared fry.
Hurwitz said the local hatchery’s rearing environments were infused with natural flora to make them more realistic and less sterile and he occasionally starved the fish to force them to learn natural eating habits with bugs and krill to ready them for the ocean hunting ahead of them.
“Instead of being in a tight ball, they spread out just like they would in nature and they’re hiding under the branches just like they would in nature,” he said. “There is some more research being done on this, but I’m really excited. It’s been a bit of extra work and experimentation and it’s showing results in very low mortalities and real healthy fish.”
Hurwitz said he also trained the young salmon to be wary of predators by using what he called a “stranger danger” technique where he would use a fake duck to mimic a predator.
“I scare them once a week with this pseudo merganser. I net some and put them into a bucket, like they’re in the penalty box, to get them thinking to be afraid of a real predator, instead of the white pail that most fish are afraid of in the hatchery,” he said. “It’s a bit of education. It may seem a bit goofy…But, this is building on some of the innate stuff that they need to survive in the wild.”