Opinions differ on how to rejuvenate B.C.’s beleaguered salmon
B.C.’s Phillips River is one of the few places where a hatchery has actually helped recover a Pacific salmon population. Returns of chinook increased from less than 500 fish in the early 2000s to consistent runs of 2,000-plus over the past decade, prompting the Gillard Pass Fisheries Association to end its hatchery program on the river in 2019.
The very fact the runs have returned and the hatchery is no longer needed represents hope for salmon recovery on the B.C. coast. To mimic this success, however, a fundamental shift is needed in how most of the province’s hatcheries now operate.
According to the president of the Gillard Pass Fisheries Association, Rupert Gale, the group’s hatchery program followed the usual playbook in the early 2000s: collect eggs and milt from spawning wild salmon in the fall; incubate the eggs over the winter; then in May or June, roughly 90 days after they hatch, release the smolts into the Phillips or nearby ocean. Of the 200,000 so-called S0s the program released annually, only 100 to 500 adult fish would return to spawn. “It was not a great success,” says Gale.
The returns were, however, about average for chinook hatcheries across B.C. Many blame the low returns on poor marine conditions, while others say the unnatural breeding inherent in hatcheries produces inferior salmon. Then there’s veteran hatchery manager Carol Schmitt, who came to the rescue on the Phillips. She believes the hatcheries themselves are the problem.
“The eggs are perfect,” says the owner/operator of Omega Pacific, a private chinook salmon hatchery on Vancouver Island. “It’s how they are looked after and raised that is compromising the juveniles’ survival.”
A DIFFERENT HATCHERY APPROACH
Behind Schmitt’s opinion is 43 years of experience raising smolts for ocean-based fish farms. Omega grows its smolts slowly, she says, keeping them in the freshwater hatchery environment for a full year before moving them to the ocean. This regime, Schmitt contends, produces more resilient smolts and better mimics the life cycle of wild chinook.
Head-to-head results suggests she’s right. Every spring from 2010 until 2015, Omega Pacific released approximately 40,000 yearling chinook smolts—referred to as S1s—into the Phillips River alongside 160,000 S0s raised at the Gillard hatchery. Both broods were wire-tagged for tracking. Subsequent research showed commercial and recreational fisheries caught a higher ratio of S1s than S0s, and that the S1s returned to spawn both in higher numbers and as bigger fish.
Gale agrees the Omega hatchery regime played an important role in the Phillips recovery, but he also credits a reduction in logging activity, habitat enhancement projects, and reduced fishing pressure. Schmitt is more adamant about the overall benefits of her approach. “If DFO incorporates our practices, it will transform the B.C. coast,” she says. “There would be lots of fish for harvest and to return to streams. It would be a wonderful thing.”
OTTAWA HAS OTHER PLANS
For its part, however, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has not adopted the Omega regime. Adam Silverstein, the regional manager for hatchery reform and modernization at DFO, says that’s because studies—including a recent analysis by the Pacific Salmon Foundation—have found little evidence yearling smolts make a difference to fish survival or spawning success. “We’ve done experiments on all kinds of different release strategies,” he says. “There are no broad rules to apply to gain massive increases.”
The DFO does think it could do better, however. In 2021, Ottawa announced the $661-million Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative, which includes the biggest investment in salmon enhancement since the federal hatchery program began in 1977. Some of the money will go to opening new hatcheries in the B.C. Interior, where there is little infrastructure and several endangered populations.
Other funds, meanwhile, will go to better understanding the genetics of different salmon populations and applying that knowledge at the hatchery level. For the Gillard Pass Fisheries Association, that could at least open the door to using more of Omega’s S1 smolts for its new chinook hatchery program on the glacier-fed Southgate River. Research shows most chinook smolts spend a year in the frigid, silty river “growing up to size” before migrating to the ocean. Says Gale: “Omega’s S1s could be a really great tool on the Southgate.”
When it comes to Pacific salmon, any promising option is a good news story.
Guest columnist Ryan Stuart is based on B.C.’s Vancouver Island.