By Andru McCracken
Putting a net across Swift Creek to catch spawning salmon is not, as Dave Snyder discovered, a good way to meet people in Valemount. But Snyder is part of a band of volunteers who are looking out for Chinook salmon and their future.
Snyder is the director of stock rebuilding programs with the Spruce City Wildlife Association. The group runs a small volunteer hatchery that is focussed on rebuilding the population of the Upper Fraser Chinook Spring 5-2 run.
Snyder explained that it’s called the Spring 5-2 run because they have a 5 year life span and typically spend two years in the area before they make their way downstream to the ocean where they spend three years before returning to spawn. The group of volunteers received dirty looks and finger wagging from locals worried about who was in the water and why at this critical time during spawning.
Snyder said he was pleased to see locals keeping an eye on the salmon and generally being protective of the fish, they need it he says, because as the Rocky Mountain Goat just discovered, the Upper Fraser Chinook Spring 5-2 run has been listed as endangered… since November 2018.
“We have seen a massive decline over the years and they were even harder hit because of the Big Bar slide,” he said.
Snyder is in the process of selecting what streams they will operate in long term. The association may or may not decide to adopt Swift Creek.
Had they been successful in collecting eggs and milt, it would have been more likely.
“Our goal in Swift Creek was to get out there at peak spawn and set nets for a short time,” he said.
They harvest eggs and milt on site and return the salmon to the stream so as not to rob the area of the nutrients.
The good news is that Swift Creek had a good run this year, Snyder and his team were able to see the redds, nests of eggs left by the salmon in the creek. The bad news was that they were unable to collect spawners, male and female that would have helped them kick off the program.
Growing up in a hatchery is comparatively a good gig. Snyder said that in the stream the survival rate of the new born eggs to become fry is between 1.5% to 5%.
In other words more than 95% of the spawn will die by the time they become fry due to predation, fungus, sediment… more over, fertilization isn’t 100%.
“Our facility is a much more controlled enrvironment,” he said. “Our success rate is 95%.”
The Spruce City Wildlife Association – based in Prince George – is becoming a big player in the world of Salmon, partly thanks to the fact that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is not playing that role.
Snyder said they are blazing a trail, filling a void left by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the early 2000s.
The association is a group of mill workers, restaurant workers, and book keepers, just regular people, who care about wildlife.
“Down the road, if we get stocks to a sustainable point there is the potential for fishing opportunity, but there is a long way to go,” he said.
Right now they are calling to cut back on salmon harvest.
“With the returns we are seeing, we need to make sure every fish is getting back to the spawning grounds,” he said. “DFO likes to harvest fish and count afterwards.”
A tough life
Snyder said that the salmon in northern runs like Swift Creek have a much longer incubation time than on the coast where the water is 12 degrees all year long.
“Swift creek probably gets down to less than 1 degree in winter. Once they are hatched, it is a cool environment and when they head to the ocean, they have a heck of a lot farther to go,” he said.
Why is something as important as saving an endangered salmon run left to a volunteer organization?
He’s similarly amazed at the lack of programs, oversight and action on the part of government.
“It’s something we’ve brought up with DFO,” said Snyder.
And they are pushing the DFO to their limits.
“As Spruce City we have to look back and see if the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is coming with us.”
Permits & permission
Snyder said that the group has all the permits they need to be in the water and they also touch base with the Simpcw First Nation for local knowledge and support.
If Spruce City does adopt Swift Creek, those fish will return to Swift Creek.
Their program ensures that they use well water, with good filters and UV sterilization to ensure that when the fry are released to Swift Creek they imprint on the stream, not some random creek in Prince George.
If the program goes ahead, locals will be invited to help release about a thousand of the fry into Swift Creek at the Visitor Info Centre.
He said building relationships between locals and salmon is an important part of their work that helps raise awareness and mindfulness of Salmon.
Feast for killer whales
Snyder said that the salmon play an important role in ecosystems and human economies throughout the province.
“This run is a major food source for southern resident killer whales. A good portion of their reason for falling off is lack of food abundance,” he said.
Fish that reach maturity will see the world.
Snyder said that once they hit the ocean they will migrate up the inside of Vancouver Island to Alaska and head all the way out into the open ocean to Russia and start showing up at Vancouver Island.
“They do a whole loop around the pacific.”
Maybe, maybe not
Whether Swift Creek will be one of the creeks adopted by Spruce City is still up in the air.
“We have to make the decision by December to see if we want to,” he said.