Worry, uncertainty felt at Little Campbell Hatchery as lack of rain holds up fish returns

A once flowing stream with fish swimming through the Little Campbell River Hatchery is now dried up with no fish to be seen as rain refuses to fall this autumn season. (Sobia Moman photo)A once flowing stream with fish swimming through the Little Campbell River Hatchery is now dried up with no fish to be seen as rain refuses to fall this autumn season. (Sobia Moman photo)
A protected pond with a gate and over-head net homes 8,000 coho salmon, which can be seen jumping above water to grab food being thrown in the water. These coho came from the surviving ones as over half were lost to the floods from November. Typically at this time of year, the hatchery has 25,000 coho. (Sobia Moman photo)A protected pond with a gate and over-head net homes 8,000 coho salmon, which can be seen jumping above water to grab food being thrown in the water. These coho came from the surviving ones as over half were lost to the floods from November. Typically at this time of year, the hatchery has 25,000 coho. (Sobia Moman photo)
Baby steelhead trouts swim about in their tank where they get fed daily and then will move into a larger pond in a couple of weeks, once they grow larger. At this stage, they weigh about 10 grams, where they started at 2 grams. All fish in the tanks are separated by species and sex. (Sobia Moman photo)Baby steelhead trouts swim about in their tank where they get fed daily and then will move into a larger pond in a couple of weeks, once they grow larger. At this stage, they weigh about 10 grams, where they started at 2 grams. All fish in the tanks are separated by species and sex. (Sobia Moman photo)

Leaves change colour, clouds crowd the sky and rain begins to fall.

These are the typical signs that autumn has arrived in B.C.

This season’s ongoing drought, however, has brought its own metaphorical storm clouds, halting the upstream passage of spawning salmon throughout the Lower Mainland, including a small, but significant, South Surrey river.

“This isn’t the worst it’s been, but it’s pretty bad,” the Little Campbell River Hatchery’s manager Bill Ridge said Wednesday (Oct. 12).

Not a single salmon or trout has made its way up the river to spawn so far this fall.

Where last year’s floods turned the 29-acre property into a swimming pool, this season’s near total lack of rainfall has left the stream-bed high and dry, making access impossible for returning fish.

RELATED: Higher ground: Little Campbell River hatchery rebuild planned following November floods

That’s left volunteers at the hatchery playing a waiting game.

Each October, the group takes fish from the river into the facility, where they extract the eggs and raise the juveniles until they are ready to be released to make their way out to sea. Both wild and hatchery fish return to the Little Campbell River every fall, but only a certain number of wild fish can be captured, as regulated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

When that will happen this year remains a mystery, as volunteers anxiously watch the forecast for a sign of coming precipitation.

“We don’t know what kind of rain we’re going to get (either), so it’s a big uncertainty,” said Roy Thomson, a volunteer at the hatchery who operates the fish fence.

An odd day of rain could come within a couple of weeks, but the volunteers say that will not make much of a difference.

“It will all get absorbed for the day… so really, we need more,” said Roger McRurie, team lead for feeding the fish.

Little Campbell River Hatchery sees runs of chinook, chum and coho salmon, in addition to two types of trout — steelhead and cutthroat.

Chinook salmon are the first to arrive in the fall season, typically right at the beginning of October. In an average year, 500 chinook — sometimes called spring salmon — spawn in the Little Campbell River.

“They should already be here, but they’re all downstream right now. These are the ones we’re worried about,” Thomson said.

“First week of October, we’d (normally) be counting fish… I don’t know what’s going to happen, are we going to have pre-spawn die-off down there like what happened at other rivers? I don’t know.”

Earlier this month, the Neekas River north of Bella Bella saw thousands of dead pink and chum salmon washed up, the drought affecting them gravely.

“The temperature down here is fine and the oxygen level should be fine up here, what it’s like further up, I don’t know. I think that’s what killed those ones, they ran out of oxygen,” Thomson said.

Chinook only enter the river for one month and typically finish their run by the end of October.

“Now, we’re looking at going from a four-week window to possibly down to a week,” Thomson explained.

“This year, everything’s going to be delayed… Our biggest concern is the chinook because we don’t know exactly how or if they’re going to survive.”

Although this lack of rain is abnormal for this time of year, DFO officials are not too worried yet.

“As long as there is significant rain within the next few weeks, it is not anticipated that this drought will cause substantial population-level impacts on the Little Campbell specifically; these fish still have time to make it to their spawning grounds and are not at an immediate risk of becoming stranded or dying,” a DFO representative said.

The DFO told PAN that “while the Chinook and Coho returning to the Little Campbell are delayed in their migration timing, there has been an abundance of these fish observed in the estuary. They are waiting there for the water levels in the creek to rise before beginning their upstream migration to the spawning grounds.”

Thomson’s job at the hatchery is baling the fish as they come in to the “traps” set up below deck. Because fish follow the flow of water, they’re led right into an area where volunteers can pull them out with a net and count them.

This time of year, sounds of fish banging against the trap, ready to be taken out of the river, normally creates quite a commotion at the hatchery. Right now, all is quiet.

Visitors have also left the hatchery disappointed. Every year, many people look forward to bringing their families to watch the salmon count.

“On Monday (Oct. 10), they were all down here, dozens and dozens of them were here asking for the fish. Unfortunately, we had to tell them we didn’t have any,” Thomson said.

With last year’s flooding disaster and this year’s drought putting another wrench in operations, the number of fish returns have dwindled significantly the past two years.

Last year’s floods also caused a lot of chinook to have “their belly rubbed raw from going through the shallow waters, it was sad to see,” McRurie recalled.

A constant adjustment to nature’s changing ways will undoubtedly affect operations at the hatchery, with the building of a new hatchery on the same plot of land, but at higher ground, part of their effort to deal with climate change.


@SobiaMoman
sobia.moman@peacearchnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

DFOEnvironmentFishSalmonSurrey

Pop-up banner image