Early run chinook salmon unable to migrate past the Big Bar Slide on their own due to high water levels are being used to enhance dwindling stocks in tributaries of the Upper Fraser.
“It is a huge undertaking with a lot of moving parts,” said Gord Sterritt of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance (UFFCA).
As a member of the joint executive steering committee formed a year ago in response to the slide, Sterritt has been involved with providing overall direction and decision making on work that is ongoing.
Adult chinook salmon are being caught at the Big Bar Slide area using a fish wheel and transported above the slide to French Bar Creek where they undergo DNA sampling to try to pair them based on their natal stream of origin, he explained.
They are then being transported by truck to the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Centre in Vanderhoof where they will be held until they are ripe and their eggs or sperm can be collected sometime between the middle of August to the first week of September, their natural spawning period.
From there, some of the eggs and sperm will be transported to the Quesnel River Research Centre (QRRC) near Likely which was once a production hatchery for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and is presently part of the University of Northern B.C. (UNBC).
“There is some capacity to bring in eggs and incubate those eggs to fry and then from there we’ll figure out what to do — hold them or release them immediately back into the wild,” Sterritt said. “There’s a suite of different options.”
Fisheries biologist Richard Holmes, who has worked for both UNBC and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and at the hatchery in Likely beginning in 1981, is involved with rejuvenating the hatchery for the incubation project.
“I’m happy to help,” he said. “I’m still a fisheries biologist entrenched with trying to improve the dire straits the stocks are in right now, especially the salmon.”
He said more recently Fisheries and Oceans Canada has used the hatchery to raise a small amount of fish for the salmonids in the classroom program, but on a production scale it has not been used since around 2000.
Last week excess incubation framework, incubation trays and stacks were brought in from DFO’s Snootli Creek Hatchery in Bella Coola to the Likely facility and were being installed this week.
Conservation enhancement isn’t just about producing more fish, it’s about trying to save runs, Holmes said, noting the Big Bar Slide has put a lot of pressure on early migrating salmon.
Later on in the summer, salmon will be able to migrate on their own, when the Fraser River levels are not so high.
Holmes said about 150 adult chinook will be retrieved in the next few weeks, hopefully to enhance the Tete Jaune, Willow and Bowron River runs.
“Those are the three we are looking to enhance, but that may change as the days move forward. We may not catch enough of those so we may drop down and target another stream in the Upper Fraser that’s in jeopardy.”
There are at least 52 separate chinook stocks above the slide area, he added.
DNA sampling takes a few days and hopefully will determine who the fish are and where they are headed.
It is anticipated there will be up to 400,000 eggs collected if all goes well, with 75 to 80 per cent fry reared at another DFO facility in the Lower Mainland and the remainder at the hatchery in Likely for release later into the Upper Fraser natal streams.
Sterritt said the slide response has been a tri-government approach involving federal, provincial and First Nations that has been evolving over the year.
Initially it was a slide response.
Over the winter it moved to a mediation response and now it is about fish transport and improving access for the fish to get to the Upper Fraser, including into the Quesnel, Horsefly and Chilcotin regions.
Holmes said the entire project is in response to a request by First Nations to start critical enhancement for conservation of fisheries from stocks they are reliant on that are not coming back anymore.
Witnessing the salmon decline first-hand throughout his 40-year career has been very disappointing, he said.
“Salmon are more than a million years old. They’ve been around a long time and it’s only taken us our brief lifetime to put them in jeopardy.”
As for the project, he described it as a great collaboration between First Nations, DFO and UNBC.
“The facility in Likely was designed to enhance chinook stocks from a number of different rivers when it was first built. It’s come first circle.”
Sterritt said they aren’t only dealing with the slide, but record low returns.
“It’s been compounding. We know that chinook returns to the Fraser River, and Upper Fraser especially, are pretty much the lowest on record. The records go back at least 100 years.”
Even with the emergency enhancement, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to improve conditions, he added.
“Any fish that are returning to tributaries above the Big Bar slide are almost all listed as a species at risk,” Sterritt said.