Thousands of eggs are slowly developing in the cold dark waters of Spruce City Wildlife Association’s hatchery in Prince George. The group has been stocking Swift Creek and they hope to start on other streams in the Robson Valley. The black dots are the fish eyes developing inside the translucent eggs. /SUBMITTED

By Laura Keil
In a small dark room at the Spruce City Wildlife Association building in Prince George, drawers full of marble-sized salmon eggs harvested from Valemount’s Swift Creek are now beginning to hatch.

The conservation organization has been harvesting eggs from the creek for several years and returning the resulting fish fry to the creek each spring.

Last spring, they returned 25,000 fish to Swift Creek in Valemount. Spruce City expects about one per cent of fish to return to spawn 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. 2023 was the second year they released salmon fry into the creek.

Association member Dustin Snyder says the hatching takes place over several weeks.

“When checking these eggs you can see the little alevins (young salmon) moving inside of the eggs,” he told the Goat Nov. 20th. “Within the next two weeks they will likely all be hatched.”

Spruce City places the fertilized eggs in special incubator trays in their Prince George facility, where the water temperature is gradually dropped to 3-4 degrees, which mimics the natural cooling of the stream over winter. Each tray has one female’s worth of eggs in it. Plastic cooler curtains help retain the room temperature and hatchery volunteers wear headlamps to reduce the light when checking on the system.

he trays where the eggs and young fish are stored until the alevin mature into fry. /SUBMITTED

“When we are checking on them, we’re very, very delicate and very sensitive. Using your gentle voice, that sort of thing.”

A monitoring screen – blacked out with a garbage bag – helps them keep an eye on things.

“We’re constantly regulating and monitoring the the oxygen in the water, the temperature of the water, that sort of thing, how much water is flowing through,” Snyder says, noting that he can access this information on his phone.

Inside of the egg, a little black sesame seed will be the first sign the eggs are nearing the hatching stage.

“Eventually, the one little black sesame seed turns into two black sesame seeds, and a little white line. And that little white line is the spine and the sesame seeds are the eyes.”

At first, the fish fry don’t require any food, as they’re able to live off their yolk sacks for several months. Snyder says in February or March, they will take them out of the incubation area and put them in a big trough where they can begin to feed and swim around. The fish are released sometime in late May or June.

In 2021, the Association underwent a major renovation, with $400,000 put into state of the art chillers custom-built in California. They hired a part-time employee this year, but the hatchery is still mostly operated by volunteers.

Enumeration Project
Beyond the walls of the hatchery, the Spruce City Wildlife Association has set their sights on more streams in the region. To do so, however, requires baseline data about fish in those streams – something that is currently lacking.

“It’s really hard sometimes to be able to protect habitat or, or put protections in place for certain streams when nobody can really say definitively where the spawning area is, and how many fish are actually returning,” Snyder said.

The Association has created their own method to count fish, using a motion-activated underwater camera, fencing the stream so all fish have to pass by it.

“Every fish that swims through, we get a little 10 second video over however long it takes them to pass through the box. We put a measuring stick in there and that sort of thing. This was kind of our pilot year. We were really excited for how successful it was, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

They are now installing mirrors inside the box to get a top and side view of each fish to help determine the sex.

“So not only will we get an accurate numeration of how many fish are actually returning back to that stream but … they’ll be able to tell if there’s any impact on how many females and how many males are returning. So if we know that, you know, 50 fish came back and only two of them were females, we know that the return for that stream five years from now might be really poor, because we only have those two females.”

They are planning to expand those programs to get a better idea of which streams in the upper Fraser and Robson Valley need assistance.

“Because there’s such a lack of data right now, we can’t just pick a stream and say we want to put 10,000 or 30,000 back into the stream. Because we don’t know if that’s going to do more harm than good. You don’t want an overpopulation of hatchery fish either.”

While they wait for the data to roll in, they have tentatively picked a couple streams in the Robson Valley area but which ones are selected depends on approval by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Two are in the McBride and Valemount area.

Snyder says due to their migration route, Upper Fraser salmon are an important food source for the Southern Resident killer whales, which have been declining in numbers, partly due to a lack of food.

Dustin Snyder. /RMG PHOTO

But it’s not just orcas that rely on these salmon.

“We have grizzly bears, we have black bears, we have eagles … we have a lot of animals that rely on those fish, and bringing nutrients that aren’t in the area. So those fish are in the ocean for three years of their life, and they’re bringing up like a whole bunch of stuff that isn’t found in the forest around.”

Aside from that food, there is also an economic argument, in terms of human fisheries.

“In the last few years, because of the decline of these populations, there’s been significant cuts to commercial fishing, resident fishing closures on the river and the whole works. And that impacts the, you know, that impacts not only the fishing companies, but that impacts the you know, the little mom and pop tackle shops that are selling tackle and that sort of thing.”

Climate change and other changes to water temperatures can severely impact these particular fish, however, since they must travel down streams during the height of summer.

“Some of the rivers around here can be 20 to 25 degrees. And that kind of water temperature is lethal to fish.”