VIDEO: Salmon babies in safe haven on Vancouver Island before hitting open ocean

Marble River chinook babies getting used to their new digs. (Zoe Ducklow)
Releasing salmon smolts into their all-inclusive resort in Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Chinook smolts are gently shoved out of their transport box, down a hose and into an ocean pen. (Zoe Ducklow)
Chinook smolts in an ocean pen in the Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Debbie Anderson, waiting to go to Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Three trucks on a barge carry 52,488 chinook smolts to the Marble River Hatchery’s ocean pen in Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Marble River Hatchery’s ocean pen in Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Live fish arriving at the ocean pen via barge. (Zoe Ducklow)

Debbie Anderson stands on the floating dock at Quatsino Lodge, waiting for the barge. Behind her, a 25-foot-deep net pen, anchored in each corner and lashed to the dock, bobs in the still water. Rain spatters on a dreary Monday morning. Volunteers bustle around the dock getting ready.

“The babies are coming, the babies are coming!” Anderson calls. The barge arrives with three trucks holding 52,000 salmon smolts between them. “LIVE FISH” is emblazoned on the boxes.

These chinook — the spawn of 14 females – had been set aside at the Marble River Hatchery for special treatment that increases their survival rate by three per cent.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but to a salmon, that’s a big deal,” Anderson says.

The rest of the 500,000 fish are released at the hatchery to find their own way to the ocean. But these smolts – older than fry, but not yet adult fish – are hand-delivered to an ocean net pen on the other side of the estuary.

In that body of water, where fresh and salt water mix, is where baby fish are most vulnerable. They get sluggish as they acclimatize to salt water and are easy prey for birds. A single family of merganser ducks can can eat 100,000 smolts in one season. These 10 per cent are taken by trucks and a barge straight to the salt water, and then get a month to grow up in safety before they’ll finally be wild.

The barge is parked next to the pen, where volunteers are ready with buckets and brooms. A six-inch-wide hose was fitted to a valve in the LIVE FISH box.

“Ready down there?” Ray Volk calls from his perch on the truck. He’s a Quatse River Hatchery staff member who helps Marble River with the fish transfer.

“Born ready!” Anderson answers. She’s crouched at the edge of the pen, holding the open end of the hose. Volk lifts the gate and three-inch salmon smolts surge down the hose into their new home.

The disoriented, stressed salmon swim in circles, mimicking their holding pens back at the hatchery. They’ll need a couple of hours to realize how much space they now have.

The Marble River Hatchery, run by a crew of over 100 volunteers, has been working to restore chinook stock in the Marble River since 1981. A local logger, Bill Dumont, found out that there used to be 10,000 chinook in the river. The year he started the hatchery, there were 500.

“If we’re going to be part of the problem, let’s also be part of the solution,” he used to say.

By 1997, Anderson had taken on a volunteer managing role at the hatchery. It was autumn, she was standing on a bridge, and saw fish swimming upstream in the river below.

Chinook smolts are gently shoved out of their transport box, down a hose and into an ocean pen. (Zoe Ducklow)

“Bill! Bill, there’s fish!” she called out.

“He didn’t believe me, but then he looked and said, ‘Debbie, there’s fish! I don’t think you understand, there’s fish!’ ” “Seventeen years. That’s how long it takes to restock a river,” Anderson said.

Now, after 39 years later, between 5,000 and 7,000 chinook swim back up the Marble River to spawn.

“If we get to 10,000, I guess it will be time to close the hatchery. But then again, if we keep fishing, maybe we need to keep helping,” Anderson mused.

Marble River flows north into Quatsino Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast, drawing from a 518-square-kilometre watershed. It was formerly used as a water source for Island Copper Mine in Port Hardy, closed in 1995, and the pulp mill in Port Alice, which ceased operating in 2015.

Water levels were low when those operations were using millions of cubic metres of water a day, but have since rebounded to the point where fish ladders the hatchery had installed are unnecessary.

Releasing salmon smolts into their all-inclusive resort in Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)

Anderson and the other volunteers, including staff from the Quatse Hatchery, stand and watch the fish, mesmerized as their colour comes back, and by the swirls and patterns they form, swimming in various clockwise groups.

With luck, these 52,000 smolts will add to the number of returning salmon in the Marble, and the hatchery team will be back next year, doing it all over again. 

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email:
zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Environmentfishing

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Interior Health records 21 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Thirty-six cases remain active; two people are in the hospital, one of whom is in intensive care

STA members and non-members alike are encouraged to send in photos of their trail adventures. (Photo contributed by Scott Tibballs)
Sparwood Trails Alliance fundraises for Lunch Loop

Trail adventurers are invited to submit photos of their adventures for an STA calendar

BC ELECTION
Voters hit the polls early

17 per cent of Kootenay East voters have already voted, with four days to go until the election

File photo
Main Roads warns of snow over weekend

It’s expected to snow in most areas covered by the East Kootenay Service Area

Tom Shypitka, Wayne Stetski, Kerri Wall and moderator Thomas Skelton at the Oct. 15 Elk Valley all-candidates forum. (Source: zoom)
At a glance: Kootenay East candidates go head-to-head in Elk Valley forum

Shypitka, Stetski and Wall called in to the zoom forum to talk all things Elk Valley

Working smoothly together on May 11, 2020, health minister Adrian Dix, B.C. Liberal health critic Norm Letnick, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and sign language interpreter Nigel Howard. (B.C. government video)
COVID-19 co-operation a casualty of B.C.’s pandemic election

NDP’s Horgan weaponizes senior care, B.C. Liberal Wilkinson calls for ‘wartime economy’

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
B.C. dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
RCMP cleared in fatal shooting of armed Lytton man in distress, police watchdog finds

IIO spoke to seven civillian witnesses and 11 police officers in coming to its decision

Three years ago, Larry Plummer challenged himself to hike up to the flag viewpoint on the Montrose Antenna trail 1,000 times. Photo: Gordon McAlpine
Senior celebrates 500th hike up Kootenay trail

Larry Plummer began his quest to complete 1,000th hike up Antenna Trail just over three years ago

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A 34-year-old man was treated for a gunshot wound in Williams Lake Monday, Oct 19, 2020. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake man treated for gunshot wound after accidental shooting: RCMP

Police are reminding residents to ensure firearms are not loaded when handling them

A injection kit is seen inside the newly opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday, June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. records 127 fatal overdoses in September, roughly 4 each day

Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria continued to see the highest numbers of overdoses

Investigators work at the Sagmoen farm in Silver Creek. - Image credit: Observer file photo.
Sex workers allegedly called to farm of Okanagan man convicted of assault, RCMP investigating

Curtis Sagmoen, convicted in relation to assault of sex trade workers, is prohibited from soliciting escorts

(Black Press Media files)
Early voters more likely to favour NDP, but overall B.C. election is tightening: poll

According to Elections BC, 383,477 people cast a ballot during advanced voting days

Most Read