A group of volunteers from Prince George hope to harvest 20,000 salmon eggs from Swift Creek to help preserve the run. The eggs will be transported to the hatchery in Prince George and they will return the fry in the spring. /LISA HOWCROFT
The captured fish are held in tubes under water in a cool spot. /ANDREA ARNOLD

By Andrea Arnold

Over the weekend of Aug 13-15, members of the Spruce City Wildlife Association (SCWA), along with volunteers from the Simpcw First Nation and Secwepemc Fisheries Group, worked together to harvest eggs and milt from Upper Fraser Spring Chinook from Swift Creek in Valemount. The Spruce City Wildlife Association is a volunteer-run organization out of Prince George whose mandate is to ensure the long-term management of BC’s fish wildlife, park and outdoor recreation resources.

Salmon populations have been on the decline over the last several years. A 2019 landslide at Big Bar created a waterfall trapping migrating salmon below. That year, only one salmon was reported to have returned to the Swift Creek area.

Dustin Snyder, Director of the Stock Rebuilding program at Spruce City, thinks that the attention raised for the fish due to the landslide has allowed more intervention from organizations like SCWA.

The Upper Fraser Spring Chinook are classified by the Committee on the Status of endangered Wildlife in Canada as endangered. SCWA is working to help increase the population safely through hatchery fertilization and growth to the fry stage, and ultimately release.

The group hoped to capture five unspawned females and several males to allow for variation and increased survival rate during the fertilization and incubation process at their facility in Prince George.

“We have a max capacity of 120,000,” said Snyder. “However, as we have just completed several renovation projects, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have asked that we work with smaller numbers to test the facility.”

This year the group hopes to collect 80,000 eggs. 20,000 from Swift Creek and 30,000 each from Bowren River and the Nechako.

The collection crew has to be careful to only select females that have not already spawned. Snyder explained how he could tell a fish he had been standing next to was not one they wanted.

“Her tail is white,” he said. “Before a fish lays her eggs, she uses her tail to remove sediment from the nest area, or red. This knocks the skin off her tail leaving it a bright white.”

The eligible fish they net and capture are kept in holding tubes, weighted down in shady areas of the creek.

“The eggs and milt are extracted from the salmon and the fertilization process is done in a way that mimics the natural process,” said Snyder. “Eggs from each female are divided up into smaller groups. The milt from male A and B are added to the first group, B and C to the second, C and D to the third and so on. This process allows for variations in genetics and also helps ensure the successful fertilization of the majority of eggs.”

The fertilized eggs are kept in a carefully monitored incubator within the Spruce City facility in Prince George.

“We have a thermometer buried in the creek (Swift creek),” said Snyder. “The temperature of the water in our facility matches that of the water here in Valemount.”

The eggs are held in the incubator until their yolk sack is absorbed in a process called ‘buttoning up,’ at approximately two months old. They are then moved to the trough and fed until their release in the spring. Prior to the addition of a feeder at the facility, volunteer staff would have to attend to the feeding of the fry six times a day. Now, the visits are considerably shorter and only have to happen three times a day.

This year, it is the hope of Snyder and the other members of the association to return some of the fertilized eggs “ides” back to a tank at the Valemount Visitor Centre. If their trip last weekend was successful, they will return with “ides” in about three weeks, once they are past the ultra fragile state of growth.

One of the volunteers on site Friday morning was Tina Donald, Simpcw Fisheries and Wildlife Manager.

“I’m all about rebuilding all salmon stocks,” she said.

Donald has been working on rebuilding the Interior Fraser Coho in the North Thompson since 1995.

“When we started, we had 50 fish in the net,” she said. “Last year, there were just under 35,000. As the fish have a cycle of 5 years, returning only then to spawn, it will take 20-25 years of doing the same restocking before a real difference will be seen.”

Donald also spoke of the loss of a piece of their culture due to the endangered fish.

“This generation has not learned to fish,” she said. “Because there are no fish to fish. A huge piece of our culture will be gone. I hope future generations will be able to fish.”

Valemount Mayor, Owen Torgerson is in full support of the efforts put in by the volunteers.

“In my lifetime, I’ve seen a decline,” he said. “If there are organizations that can responsibly bring the population back to anywhere near it once was, I’m in support. This was the reason the council decided to have the collaboration between the visitor centre and Spruce City. Also, it has always been a discussion between the Simpcw First Nations and the Village.”

Once the group has determined a spot in the creek that has several fish in it, they net off the area to contain, allowing for easier capture. One volunteer must continuously man the net in case of complications. /ANDREA ARNOLD

“We like to encourage community involvement when it comes time to release,” said Snyder. “We try to partner with a local business and hold a BBQ type event. This gives locals more of a connection to the stream and the fish who inhabit it.”

Snyder and the other members of SCWA hope to return to Swift Creek in the late spring to hold a release party with the community.

SCWA relies on fundraising, sponsorships and grants to maintain and grow their operation. Recent renovations were a result of grant money. Ongoing sponsorships from Canfor, Enbridge and the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance cover monthly operational expenses such as electricity which often run into the thousands.

Tours are available at the hatchery. Email [email protected] for more information.

Spruce City Wildlife Association volunteers carefully examine a caught fish before placing it in an underwater holding tube tucked into the shade of a fallen tree. /SUBMITTED