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

Marble River chinook babies getting used to their new digs. (Zoe Ducklow)Marble River chinook babies getting used to their new digs. (Zoe Ducklow)
Debbie Anderson, waiting to go to Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)Debbie Anderson, waiting to go to Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
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)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)Marble River Hatchery’s ocean pen in Quatsino Sound. (Zoe Ducklow)
Live fish arriving at the ocean pen via barge. (Zoe Ducklow)Live fish arriving at the ocean pen via barge. (Zoe Ducklow)
Releasing salmon smolts into their all-inclusive resort in Quatsino Sound. (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 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)Chinook smolts in an ocean pen in the Quatsino Sound. (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.

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

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.

“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

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Hecht Beach cabin in ashes. (Submitted)
Beloved secret cabin lost to fire on the North Island’s west coast

The trappers cabin was shared with locals, but kept mostly secret

An Atlantic salmon is seen during a Department of Fisheries and Oceans fish health audit at a fish farm near Campbell River, B.C. in 2018. Mowi Canada has applied to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of the decision by Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to phase out salmon farming in the Discovery Islands by June, 2022. (Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward photo)
Major B.C. salmon farms seek court intervention in Discovery Islands ban

Fisheries minister is phasing out operations in the area by June 2022

Michelle Lau with donations that have already been contributed for families kept away from home due to the Town Park Apartments fire. (Zoe Ducklow Photo)
Fundraiser started for tenants left hanging after apartment fire

Tenants not allowed back in to get personal items, so in need of clothes, food, gift cards

A mattress on fire gutted the second floor hallway at Town Park Apartments C-block Jan. 17. (Port Hardy Fire Rescue images)
‘Suspicious’ Port Hardy apartment fire could keep tenants out of their homes for months

A burning mattress created smoke and heat, causing several tenants to jump from windows

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Hamonic grabs Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson by the face during first period NHL action in Vancouver, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horvat scores winner as Canucks dump Habs 6-5 in shootout thriller

Vancouver and Montreal clash again Thursday night

A suspect has been arrested in connection with fires at Drinkwater Elementary (pictured) and École Mount Prevost. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Arson suspect arrested after fires at Cowichan Valley schools

Drinkwater Elementary and Mount Prevost schools hit within a week

A woman writes a message on a memorial mural wall by street artist James “Smokey Devil” Hardy during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

Chartwell Malaspina Care Residence in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file photo)
Two Nanaimo care-home residents have died during COVID-19 outbreak

Death reported Monday was the second related to Chartwell Malaspina outbreak, says Island Health

Rod Bitten of Union Bay won $500,000 in the Lotto Max draw on Jan. 15. Photo supplied
Vancouver Island electrician gets shocking surprise with $500K Extra win

Rod Bitten has been hard at work with home renovations, which is… Continue reading

Oyster River Fire Rescue members were called out to a suspicious fire in Black Creek. Two vehicles parked at a private residence were destroyed by fire. Photo courtesy Oyster River Fire Rescue
Suspicious fire destroys two vehicles at Vancouver Island residence

Oyster River Fire Rescue personnel were dispatched to a fire at a… Continue reading

Members of the BC RCMP Explosive Disposal Unit (EDU) is on route to Drummond Park opposite of Fulford Habour on Saltspring Island after the discovery of a suspicious cylindrical-shaped device. (Google/Screencap)
Bomb disposal unit en route to Salt Spring Island after suspicious device found in park

Police say a resident discovered the device Wednesday morning in Drummond Park opposite BC Ferries terminal

Seven streets in downtown Duncan, including Station Street, will soon have new native names added to their signage. (Submitted graphic)
New Duncan street signs will be in English and Hul’q’umi’num

Seven streets to get additional names in First Nations language

Most Read