With a little help from local kids, and grown ups too, thousands of baby Chinook salmon were released into the Ucluelet Harbour on May 22 as part of the annual Thornton Creek Hatchery Adopt A Baby Salmon event.
Weighing around 5-8 grams, the tiny king salmon were carefully carried in buckets down to the nearby estuary and then dropped into the water to begin their epic pilgrimage to open ocean.
“We’re preserving the ecological integrity of these ecosystems. As I like to say, you can take away bears, you’ve got more salmon, you take away salmon and you’ve got zero bears,” said Thornton Creek Hatchery manager Dave Hurwitz.
“King fishers, herons, whales, bears, orcas, right down to bacterial fungus, they all rely on salmon in some form or another for their survival. We’re not just making salmon to be caught, we’re trying to keep the species alive in their particular stream.”
Founded in 1981 to fulfill a contract with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Thornton Creek Hatchery (TCH) supports the enhancement of depressed salmon stocks in Clayoquot and Barkley Sound.
“We’re like firemen,” Hurwitz said. “We go where we are needed.”
Currently, TCH has a partnership with the Tofino Hatchery and about one third of their resources go towards replenishing salmon stock in the depleted areas of Clayoquot Sound. Already this year, Hurwitz said, they have released about 600,000 Chum fry into local systems.
“We are rebuilding Twin Rivers and Salmon Creek. That stock was almost extirpated,” he said. “Once it gets down to twenty fish or a hundred fish, it’s hard to come back.”
Hurwitz noted salmon are up against a myriad of harmful issues, including over-fishing, bad forestry practices, negligent development, and climate change.
“It’s like death by a thousands cuts,” he said.
To combat the increased demise in local salmon stock, TCH is using progressive science techniques.
“We’re doing a new thing called matrix spawning where we take the female and we split her eggs into 4 and we use 4 different dads so we are widening the gene pool. We don’t want to narrow the gene pool,” Hurwitz explained.
He added educating youth and working closely with local First Nations is also a primary focus for the hatchery.
“I went to a conference last year with all the hatcheries and I was the youngest guy. I’m 52. The average age in salmon enhancement has to be 68. We need to start thinking about the future,” he said.
This year, Ucluelet’s elementary and secondary schools hosted an aquarium with 50 chum eggs. The students raised them and then released them into the stream where the eggs were harvested from. The Ucluelet Warrior group in Hitacu also helped release chum fry into a stream in their territory.
“It’s really all about the kids. If you start the kids off in the right direction, respecting nature and getting involved with nature… The change starts at home,” Hurwitz said.
TCH has been under a funding freeze for the last twenty years. As a result, the non-profit society relies heavily on the kindness of local businesses and volunteers to maintain the facility and its mandate.
“Fishermen live in hope,” Hurwitz said. “We are trying to be proactive by searching for other revenue streams via fundraising and sponsorship.”
Anyone interested in supporting the Thornton Creek Hatchery is encouraged to contact Dave Hurwitz at 250-726-7566.