The 38 Chinook salmon eggs arrived at the Valemount Visitor Centre Oct. 17th. With proper care and attention the eggs will hatch into Alevin and eventually become fry that can be released back into Swift Creek in late spring 2022. The eggs must be kept in darkness. Low-light camera settings helped capture the above photo./LAURA KEIL

By Laura Keil

When Cassandra Knelsen comes into work at the Valemount Visitor Centre, the first thing she does is check the temperature of the creek water that’s held inside a regular size fish tank.

Thirty eight chickpea-size Chinook salmon eggs sit among the rocks at the bottom of the tank.

She carefully records the temperature of the water at the same time each day. The water must stay between 3 and 5 degrees, and preferably at 4. Adding up the temperatures gives her an idea to when the salmon eggs will hatch, a miracle that may just save the Chinook from extinction.

Helping this endangered species to survive is a collective effort. The Valemount Visitor Centre has partnered with Spruce City Wildlife Association and Fisheries and Oceans Canada and received support from Simpcw First Nation and the Pacific Salmon Foundation. The goal of the local stewardship program is to help educate the public about the threat to wild salmon, as well as help to re-stock Swift Creek.

It’s good for the fish and it’s also good for tourism. Starting in August prospective travellers phone the Visitor Centre to see if there are salmon spawning. Knelsen says people travel from other countries specifically to see the salmon run. For them, it’s a rare chance.

“If you see them jumping at Rearguard (Falls), I think it’s a once in a lifetime thing.”

But in recent years, fish numbers have dipped significantly. In 2019, the year of the Big Bar Landslide that hindered the fish’s passage upstream, Swift Creek only had one fish, which means the eggs couldn’t be fertilized and no fish will return in 2023. In recent years there have often been just a handful seen from the viewing platform at George Hicks Park.

“I remember being a little girl and the creek running red,” Knelsen said. “You never had to look for the salmon, you could always see the tail or something red in the water. So to see it now—you’re counting on your fingers how many you can see down at the creek—it’s pretty sad. We need to step up and do something.”

Cassandra Knelsen remembers when Swift Creek brimmed with red during spawning season. In recent years, they count the salmon on their fingers. /LAURA KEIL

While local schools have raised salmon to the fry stage for other streams, this is the first time Swift Creek Chinook will be raised in a local hatchery. More Swift Creek Chinook—nearly 20,000—are being raised at the Spruce City Wildlife Association hatchery in Prince George. Those will be released into Swift Creek at the same time.

Knelsen said she hopes people come by the Visitor Centre to see what’s going on, even though the salmon run is over this year.

“There’s this chance to see a part of them, take a peek where their life development is now, [and] explain the education process of it.”

Inside the tank, it’s as dark as it would be underneath the gravel of the creek bed, their natural location if their mother had laid them in the creek. Insulation goes around the tank to keep it dark and maintain the cold. A small door in the insulation allows viewers to peek inside. Once the fish reach the fry stage, the covering can be removed to allow light.

Knelsen says they have two of everything in case one breaks, due to the four-hour transport time from the city. They also have a back-up power supply for the bubbler in case the power goes out.

After hatching into Alevins in December, the fish will need another 50-90 days before reaching the fry stage. They won’t be ready to release until May or June. Knelsen says they have to wait for a certain current to come through the creek before releasing them. She hopes it can be a community event, but that all depends on COVID-19 restrictions in the spring.

“Typically … they’ll put the fish in a kind of cup and then, as a family, you can go down to the creek and let it go,” she said.

The success of the hatchery fish won’t be known for four years—the life cycle for Chinook—as the fish must travel to the ocean to bulk up before making the trip back to Swift Creek to spawn. The fish only spawn in the creek where they were born, and they recognize it by its smell.

“We can aim for at least 50 coming back, which is way more than we’ve been having,” Knelsen said.

Spruce City Wildlife says it’s common for 95 per cent of fish to survive to the fry stage in a hatchery compared to 4-6 per cent in nature. About 75 per cent of fry are eaten by predators.

The eyed eggs are due to hatch into Alevins between the middle and end of December. Visitors are welcome to view the tank. The Visitor Centre hours are the same as the Village of Valemount: Mon-Fri 8:30am–12:30pm and 1:30pm–4:30pm.

Keeping track of the tank’s temperature gives an idea as to where the salmon are in their life cycle, such as when they will hatch into Alevin. /LAURA KEIL