West Coasters are primed to have buckets of fun next week at the Ucluelet Aquarium's annual release day on Dec. 6. "We're really excited," said the aquarium's curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane.
"It's one of our favourite days of the year. It's the culmination of our season. It's when we get to return everything back to where we collected them from."
The Ucluelet Aquarium runs a unique catch and release program that means they collect the specimens from local harbours before the facility opens in March and then release those specimens back into the wild each December.
Rather than keep all the fun to themselves, aquarium staff invite the community to carry their favourite critters to the Whiskey Dock where the majority of creatures are released.
"The aquarium has always been a very community supported society," Griffith Cochrane said.
"The Ucluelet aquarium that we're in today would not have happened without the support of our community members, so it's another way for us to really reach out and be involved with everyone around us."
She added the event provides a solidly positive and educational experience.
"It's just really fun to release together and also to provide an opportunity to extend this relationship that we have with species within the aquarium back into the local environment," she said.
"It's creating that relationship that isn't just to a single species but with the whole ecosystem that surrounds it."
She said the release day event is not without sorrow as aquarium staff and patrons grow attached to the species they have watched grow in the facility over the season.
"It's a little bit bittersweet, you have to say goodbye to them but you also can't help but wonder how they're going to do in the wild and hope that they're going to be really successful and reproduce and keep our local waters plentiful," she said.
The aquarium's spa like oceanic atmosphere carries enough romantic flavour that the aquarium traditionally releases more animals than they collected at the start of the season.
"We will definitely be releasing more animals than we brought in this year," Griffith-Cochrane said.
"We've had a lot of things reproduce in here."
She acknowledged the release program is expensive and complicated but said it is important for the aquarium to continue to do.
"Not doing the release part would make our lives a lot easier but we wouldn't really enjoy that," she said adding that she believes the program's positive attributes outweigh its costs and complications.
"You stay connected to the environments you're talking about because you're going back to them frequently and releasing to them frequently so you stay in tune with the rhythms that are going on in the ecosystem," she said.
"The species that you return will go back and reproduce and keep the natural populations healthy." She noted some ocean critters like rockfish, which she said do not travel more than 25 metres outside of their territory, need large populations to exist in small spaces in order to reproduce successfully.
"They keep small territories so if they are to reproduce effectively there have to be many of them present so, even if we're saying that we're doing it for educational reasons, if we're taking something out and not returning it we could still be impacting the genetics of that population," she said, To ensure the aquarium's critters to not bring diseases into the harbour when they are released, the facility goes through thorough inspections and works with a veterinarian who specializes in ecosystem health and fitness, according to Griffith-Cochrane. She added the aquarium does not host tropical or other non-native species and does not culture anything in the facility, which cuts down on the risk of disease.
"We don't bring in anything from outside of Barkley or Clayoquot Sound waters," she said adding, "We pump local water through the facility so anything that's going on in the wild is going on here and vice versa."
She said aquarium staff check off rigorous inspection checklists each day. "We're very, very, cautious," she said. "Because we really believe in this program and because it's our favourite aspect of the aquarium, it's something that we're very careful about."
The aquarium will be hosting its release day event from Noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 6 and anyone interested in participating is encouraged to arrive right at noon because when the creatures are gone, they are gone. "It's your last chance to see this year's species before they go back to the wild and, because we're catch and release, they won't be the same ones next year so if you have a favourite you can help to take it back to its home," Griffith- Cochrane said.
Everyone is advised to bring a bucket to carry specimens in and a mug for hot chocolate.