by Laura Keil

Bradley releases a fry down the “waterslide” into Swift Creek. The hatchery volunteers encouraged everyone to release some fry and wish them luck on their journey. /LAURA KEIL

Dustin Snyder and his team of volunteers are on a mission.

As the number of spawning salmon in Upper Fraser creeks has declined, he and a hard-working group at Spruce City Wildlife Association in Prince George have taken matters into their own hands.

And in some cases, more than hands. On Sunday May 7th, Jesi Lauzon waded up to her hips in creek water, readying the tube that would carry many of the 25,000 fry into the 4 degree waters of Swift Creek in Valemount. The tubes were plugged into tanks in the backs of several pick-up trucks that had made the journey from the hatchery in Prince George that day. The team harvested the eggs from the creek last fall, and they have been incubating at the association’s hatchery since then.

Jesi Lauzon of Spruce City Wildlife holds the release tube above the 4 degree water as the fry leave the hatchery tanks for their new home. /LAURA KEIL

Snyder addressed the crowd of about 50 people who had come out to celebrate the release and to have the chance to release some fry into the creek themselves. The salmon spend about two years in freshwater and another three or so in the ocean. The Upper Fraser Chinook Spring 5-2 run that spawn in Valemount are some of the furthest-swimming fish travelling up the Fraser River and have been listed as endangered since November 2018.

Dustin Snyder addressed the crowd at George Hicks park Sunday.

Spruce City expects about one per cent of fish to return at age five – that doesn’t sound like a lot, but one per cent of 25,000 is 250 fish, which would be a huge improvement on existing numbers in Swift Creek. This is the second year they have released salmon fry into the creek.

Snyder says their goal of rebuilding fish stocks also helps tourism. He spoke to some people who always camp at the Yellowhead Campground each year so they have a first-rate view of the spawning salmon. He said it would be nice for more people to learn about the salmon and experience them first-hand.

“So that when you come here (during spawning season) you’ll always see a fish, as opposed to coming here and like ‘I hope we see one today.’ It’s changed a lot.”

It’s not just one thing that’s affected salmon stocks. New research is pointing to things like logging along tributaries to salmon bearing streams affecting water temperature. 

“There’s no smoking gun,” says Tyler Thibeault, Community Advisor for Fisheries and Oceans who attended the event. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Thibeault – who acts as a liaison between conservation groups and the government – had a display on Sunday that showed the diminishing survival rate of salmon as they progress through their life cycle – a shocking drop from egg stage to spawning adult.

Tyler Thibeault, Community Advisor for Fisheries and Oceans, had a display showing the diminishing survival rate of salmon as they progress through their life cycle as well as a “roulette” showing the various challenges they face /LAURA KEIL

Big Plans

Spruce City Wildlife has been releasing salmon fry into the Nechako River, another tributary to the Fraser River. Their goal, however, is to expand the program to other streams.

Snyder says they’re working on an enumeration project to ascertain fish numbers in the region.

“A lot of streams between here and Prince George and the Upper Fraser haven’t been properly enumerated, some of them for as long as 30 years. So nobody knows if there’s actually fish left, or how many.”

He hopes the project can teach them what the habitat looks like, how many fish the streams could sustain, and how many fish are there to inform future release projects.

But he hopes they won’t have to do this work forever. 

“This should be an industry that puts itself out of work, almost,” Snyder says. “We want the fish and nature to do it themselves, but with the lower returns and endangered population, they don’t do a good job on their own.”

Spruce City Wildlife will be back mid-August to collect more milt and eggs from Swift Creek to begin the process all over again. Anyone wanting to support the volunteer-run endeavour can make a donation or become a member of the association. The association does not receive any funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“It’s all volunteer fundraised, raffle tickets, that sort of thing,” he said.