Ucluelet’s Thornton Creek Hatchery is combining creatively inexpensive tools and rapidly expanding scientific knowledge to reverse a troubling trend of vanishing salmon stocks.
“Trial and error is a great teacher, we’re just running out of stuff to do trial and error with and we’ve got to start getting it right,” hatchery manager Dave Hurwitz told the Westerly News.
The hatchery has taken some unique approaches to emulating nature for the fry it raises, including using a rubber merganser duck to teach them about predators, using branches and foliage to mimic wildlife habitats and starving the young salmon for days to encourage them to feed on wild bugs.
“We have the lowest densities in the tanks of any hatchery in B.C. by far. We are cutting edge…We’re breaking ground here. Unfortunately it’s going to take a few years to even begin to see the results of those effects,” Hurwitz said. “We really are doing some of the most progressive enhancement techniques going…We’re innovators. We’re doing stuff different. And, a lot of it isn’t rocket science. Emulating nature isn’t rocket science, it’s just more work. It just means a little bit more dedication.”
The hatchery is in its release season and plans to send roughly 700,000 chinook, chum and coho salmon into the wild this month, but will wait for ideal conditions, rather than follow a mapped out release schedule, according to Hurwitz.
“When we release our fry, we follow mother nature’s cue,” Hurwitz said. “They usually go in a rainfall event. It’s an instinctive thing because they feel the push of the current, there’s more volume of water in the river, there’s colour to the river that gives them protection from predators…We’re trying to give them the best chance we can by following their innate instinctive behaviour.”
He added the releases are spread out over multiple days because releasing all the fish at once would create a feeding frenzy for predators.
“Every bird in the area can see that school from space, they start diving and everything’s attracted. Whereas if you do it stealthily at least they get the first couple days to get the lay of the land and they’re not getting hammed like WWI going over the fence,” he said.
Thornton Creek receives about $158,000 in annual funding from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Hurwitz said it’s challenging to stretch those dollars our across maintaining and upgrading equipment while also studying new sciences and techniques, but added that it’s hard to say how much would be enough.
“As far as funding goes, we’re ticking along,” he said. “It’s like how long is a piece of string? How much money is it going to take to fix salmon? Well, I don’t know, let’s start with how much money is it going to take to fix climate change and we’ll go backwards from there. That’s the scary, daunting, very soul-destroying kind of scenario we’re in right now.”
He said returns of both chinook and chum have been “terrible” and that a lack of rainfall has many river systems flowing subsurface and disrupting spawning patterns.
“In the end, there is a lot of nuances to the threats against salmon. I always say it’s death by a thousand cuts, but we’ve got to stop ignoring the term, this negative catchall, which is climate change,” he said.
“The pressures on salmon are increasing from all species including humans, so that’s a recipe for diminishing returns…Chinook salmon in particular are oversubscribed. From what we swam and what we interpolated, I doubt more than 550 chinook made it back to all the rivers in Clayoquot Sound.”
He pointed to two prominent river systems, the Moyeha and the Megin, which were untouched by logging and remain pristine, yet still show shockingly low returns.
“This is where you go to see a Sasquatch. This is where you go to walk a river that’s very hard to get to and you won’t see a Lucky can, you won’t see human footprints. The Moyeha is the biggest river in Clayoquot Sound, it got 16 chinook returning to it last year. The Megin is also a pristine watershed and it got three chinook coming back,” he said.
Thornton Creek has been enhancing West Coast salmon populations since the 1970’s and science is rapidly evolving as the hatchery looks to improve upon the salmon its releasing.
“With the advent of DNA and some of the more advanced science and just looking at things, we’re starting to find out more about salmon very quickly,” he said. “The fishermen are pounding the table asking hatcheries to crank out more fish and we’re going, you know what, it might not be the answer.”
He added Salmon Roundtables in both Clayoquot and Barkley Sound have brought stakeholders to the table to work on solutions.
“We’re trying to figure out where the endangered runs are in the ocean,” he said. “By interviewing people and sampling for DNA and finding out where the fish were caught, they put all these points on a map with the date and it starts to tell a story.”
He expressed support for strategic, science-based, fishing closures and suggested poaching is playing a key role in the demise of salmon.
“It only takes one jerk,” he said. “You set a net across the river at the right time, you get everything.”
He suggested roughly 150 species rely on salmon for their survival around Vancouver Island.
“Salmon are a keystone species because their presence or absence drives the food web,” he said. “If there’s no salmon, you’re bankrupting the whole ecosystem…The fish are oversubscribed, the numbers are down, the threats are more and we’ve got to take it seriously.”
Hurwitz added though, that he feels “blessed” to work with committed volunteers at the Hatchery and that passionate British Columbians continue to work on enhancing salmon populations throughout the province and he hopes the educational events hosted at Thornton Creek, like an Adopt a Baby Salmon Day held each June, will generate more nature-nurturing salmon stewards.
“I’m a salmon ambassador. They don’t talk, that’s my job,” he said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about teaching kids because they’ve got an open mind. They’re little computers that we can program with some good information.”
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