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Hatchery staff anxious for more salmon

More rainfall needed to support spawning season
Mel Edgar

Although pink salmon are nosing their way up Powell River fishways, without much more rain a hatchery official on Tla’amin (Sliammon) First Nation is concerned whether the fish can survive this season’s run.

Every fall, BC salmon return from the sea to their ancestral waterways, bringing forth the new generations and giving life to the land. This is how it is supposed to go, but with this being BC’s warmest summer on record there are serious worries about this year’s salmon spawn.

“We need more rain,” said Lee George, manager of Sliammon Salmon Hatchery. “Water temperature has a lot to do with the fish returning and survival.”

Water worry is nothing new for George, a 25-year veteran at the hatchery who fought and lost against a flood at Sliammon last October, when more than 100 millimetres of rain in a span of 48 hours destroyed the hatchery’s fish weir, as well as washing out their incubators, brood stock and smoke house.

“You get a big flood event and it just kind of washes everything away,” said George, who estimates there was about $60,000 dollars worth of damage at the hatchery. “We are going to see the effects of that flood.”

George said the hatchery has been rebuilding ever since the flood, including reconstructing the smokehouse and replacing much-needed incubators and the fish weir, a low barrier built across the stream to help the hatchery manage debris and water flow in order to gather brood stock.

“I was in panic mode as we had the one big rain prior to that and the weir wasn’t even put in yet,” said George, who rushed back from a conference in Vancouver to oversee the finishing touches on the barrier just as the first fish were making their way up Sliammon River. “It was finished just in the nick of time.”

Part of the delay was the extreme amount of damage caused by the flood, which was so powerful that it washed away the former weir’s concrete bulkhead, said George. Additionally, there was a need to design a more responsive weir to help them weather future storms.

“This is quite a cool invention,” said George, listing off the benefits of the the new weir, which is collapsable rather than presenting a hard barrier to errant flood debris. “Any debris that comes down it will hit the cable, [open the gate] and the debris will be allowed to follow on its way down.”

With lake levels so low, drought is still a worry, said George, and he is waiting to see how the rain comes in this year.

“I am crossing my fingers and hoping we don’t get it all at once like last year,” he said. “We need more rain, not all at once, maybe a little bit at a time all the way until November.”

Armed with a new weir, incubators, and all the knowledge gained from his many years of experience at the hatchery, George is ready to meet the challenge ahead, yet he still worries about being able to provide food fish for the Tla’amin (Sliammon) people.

Now operating the hatchery in partnership with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), George said it is sometimes difficult to explain to people on the First Nation reserve why they cannot take fish from their river.

“Everybody has got to make a living,” said George. “But we have to see to the rivers first and make sure we have some thing for this year, the year after and the year after that.”

George said the challenge will be to work with the DFO in the days leading up to treaty and self-governance, which is anticipated in April 2016.

“We want to be clear on what Sliammon is envisioning,” said George, “which will be partnerships between Sliammon’s government and DFO’s government to make sure that these rivers are seeded.”

With last year’s flood and this year’s low abundance meaning fewer food fish for his people, George said things will be difficult.

“This leaves everybody in our community without food for the winter,” said George, who went hunting last year in order to bulk up food stocks for elders who are unable to get out on their own anymore.

”That’s my responsibility,” said George on securing this year’s brood stock and clearing this year’s run. “I know there’s going to be a lot of people looking for salmon.”

According to Shane Dobler, manager of Powell River Salmon Society, the fish run should pick up later in the month.

“Everybody lives in fear of what the fish are going to do if the water is low, but we are very fortunate,” said Dobler, who manages the Lang Creek Hatchery, where water drawn from the weir at Haslam Lake has been enough to run the hatchery.  “As long as we can keep a wetted width so fish have something to swim in, we’re good.”

But with levels at Sliammon Lake much lower in spite of heavy conservation efforts, drought is making this year’s run a waiting game on the reserve.

“That last little rain we had, this is what drove the fish in,” said George. The low water flow just supports the 50 or so pinks gathering in the shadow of the Tla’amin (Sliammon) weir, he said.

“If they wait long enough, and the drought continues, the fish will have no choice but to try and come in,” said George. “The water low as it is, a lot could get pushed out of the water and onto the banks, and they get landlocked and they die.”

Still, George said he is gearing up for smoking salmon with his family, anticipating as he does every year the gathering of multiple generations to build the winter’s food stocks.

“The kids come out of school and we make an event every year,” he said, explaining that it is closely tuned to the whims of weather, water flow and fish. “I cut the fish, the kids will come in and they’re dumping the remains of the fish, scaling and that sort of thing and keeping the fire going.

“Everybody has a responsibility,” he laughs. “Everybody goes home with smoky hair.”