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Chum are back
Bill Newport, Tim Pardee and Jim Bydak of the Bowen Island Fish and Wildlife Club have been looking closely at local creeks. They were joined by many curious islanders who’ve flocked to the lagoon over the last few days to catch a glimpse of the large number of salmon that are coming back to spawn.
Bydak and Pardee counted four chum in Davies Creek, one in the wintering pond and one below the bridge in the stream mouth on Tuesday. Newport reported seeing 17 salmon at the spillway on Sunday and 13 on Monday. “There are chum coming through every day and they look very healthy,” Newport said. “Part of the reason the salmon look so healthy is because the rain came at the right time and in the right quantity for them to enter local waterways. If the fish have to stay out in the ocean and wait for an window of opportunity, they don’t eat and slowly lose energy until they look horrible.” This is an exciting time for Pardee, the fish and wildlife club’s president, who has been making it a habit to walk along local creeks every week beginning in September to gather data about spawners.
“In the last two years, Jim [Bydak] and I have gone every week to look for salmon spawning,” Pardee says. “Since they tend to go into the shade where they are hard to see, we bring a stick. When we encounter a big rock, a log or an overhang, we’ll poke around to get them to move and then we count them.” He added that this information is compiled into a spawners’ survey and passed along to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), “It gives an estimate on how many salmon are coming back.” In the last two years, Pardee and Bydak didn’t have much to report. “We didn’t see a single salmon,” Pardee says. “But this year, based on what people are seeing, a lot of spawners are returning.”
Based on what he has seen so far, Newport says, “My best guess for this year’s spawning season is that we will have a thousand or more chum. I don’t have a sense of what’s happening with coho because we haven’t seen any yet. It’s been about five years since we had a really good run for chum.”
Rob Bell-Irving, the DFO’s community advisor of the Sea to Sky Corridor and Lower Fraser ecosystem management branch, was happy to report that the numbers of chum returning to spawn are increasing on a regional level. “I just got a call from the West Vancouver streamkeepers to say that there are quite a few chum showing up in Eagle Creek. We are also seeing more in Squamish. So for one species, there seems to be an upswing,” he said.
Bell-Irving welcomes the news. “Over the last 25 years, chum had been the most consistent of all the five species of salmon in terms of decent escapements. They’ve been relatively dependable compared to other stock,” he explained. “About six years ago, chum seemed to go into a decline. It is not unexpected for a species to have a decline for a year or two but when it continued into a third and fourth year, we became quite concerned.”
Bell-Irving doesn’t know the reason. He said that ocean feeding conditions were good and fishing wasn’t a problem because chum has lower market value per pound compared to sockeye, chinook and coho. And it was a B.C. issue as countries like Alaska, Russia and Japan reported that their chum stocks were excellent. “It was very surprising. But chum are a very mysterious salmon. They travel further than any other salmon,” Bell-Irving said. “It’s very common for B.C. salmon to mingle freely with salmon from Russia, Japan and Alaska. They travel long ways so we can’t track them as well as other fish.”
“On Bowen, [salmon enhancement] started in the late 1990s. Starting in 2000/2001, we built the chum run up to where we were getting between 500 and 1,500 back every year. That’s when the chum became part of Bowen culture and it was a very joyful thing,” Bell-Irving recalls. “Every year, residents would see at least a few hundred chum coming into the lagoon. Around six years ago, they became harder to locate.”
Bowen Island started with zero stock because local creeks had lost all their original salmon and Bell-Irving believes that it was quite an accomplishment to get the escapements back into the hundreds. And with a chum run like this season, he predicts what he calls a “brood year.” It will yield a good return in 2016/2017 when the chum, who live four to five years, are expected to come back. Pardee said that in addition to the chum spawning in Bowen creeks, the hatchery will continue to receive chum eggs from Squamish. “With the chum improving in Squamish, we are going to be able to bring over quite a good number of chum eggs. We can get back to the routine of releasing anywhere between 90,000 and 200,000 chum,” Bell-Irving predicts. “When the situation for them in the ocean has improved and they have a nice healthy habitat to return to for spawning, the chance of maintaining that success is pretty good.”
Newport added, “We are expecting about 200,000 chum eggs in the hatchery, and about 40,000 coho eggs in late December. Next year, there is a possibility of creating a new run of pink salmon on Bowen. Around this time next year, in addition to the chum and coho, we may have about 200,000 pink salmon eggs. Bowen creeks will accept that species. That means they don’t compete with each other. It is quite exciting to try a pink run on Bowen.”
To Bell-Irving, there is another aspect to maintaining strong fish runs. “For thousands of years, salmon have come back to spawn in great numbers and then they die. Their carcasses provide literally millions of tonnes of one of the most powerful nutrients along the coast,” he said. “Carcasses decompose and pump the streams full of a powerful nutrient that causes all kinds of aquatic life to grow. And when the millions of young fish come out in the spring, there is lots of food for them to eat. And the rivers carry the nutrients to the ocean.”
Bell-Irving mentioned a study conducted in forested areas in British Columbia that found that the trees are heavily made up of salmon nutrients, even those situated away from waterways. He says it is assumed that predators consume the fish, wander off into the woods and distribute the nutrients through their feces. “[The researchers] examined 300 to 400-year-old trees and found salmon nutrients,” he said.
And the impact of the salmon is obvious. “Once the runs got up into the hundreds on Bowen, you started getting more herons and kingfishers. People reported seeing otters, seals and eagles. Everything came to life,” says Bell-Irving. Similar signs have been witnessed this spawning season. Newport added that he doesn’t mind the harbour seals and eagles getting their share. “As far as I’m concerned, they started out as the Fish and Wildlife Club’s fish but now they are feeding the ocean and birds. That’s alright.”
“The returning spawners reboot the whole eco system,” Bell-Irving said. “The most important thing people need to know about salmon is that they are one of the most important building blocks for watershed nutrients and for ocean growth. Salmon abundance is critically important for that reason alone.” Bell-Irving added that the salmon enhancement project “created a lot of joy” and that “salmon make people happy when they come back.”
But the good news doesn’t mean that the work is done. “What acts in Bowen Island’s favour is that there is a good quantity of habitat paired with quality habitat. But people have to be vigilant and protect that because without the habitat, you don’t have the potential,” Bell-Irving said. He explained that the same numbers of coho and chum were released in West Vancouver and on Bowen. “But we don’t have the same quantity and quality of habitat in West Van. We get some fish back there - and they have great value educationally - but we don’t get the same numbers we have on Bowen. We are lucky that one of the most important chum areas is right in a Metro Vancouver park,” he said.
As examples on how to get involved, Bell-Irving listed watershed management planning and monitoring areas where there have been issues in the past, like the Grafton Lake dam. Newport added that he also sees development as a potential problem. “There has been development that has stopped runs altogether. In the past, development has put silt in the water that killed fish in hatchery. The streamkeepers will be putting more effort into monitoring the fish-bearing streams on Bowen. Bowen streams are healthy overall and we strive to keep them that way.”
And what happens upstream can have an impact on salmon habitat. Newport explained that fish don’t jump, they only swim fast. “Chum come into the lagoon and go to the bottom to falls, or up Davies Creek. Coho are stronger and go up the ladder,” he said, adding that the chums’ colours are green and motley beige while coho are red. Bell-Irving did not venture a guess as to coho numbers. “They could show up anytime from the middle of October until the end of January,” he said. He added that it is important to work closely with Metro Vancouver and the Bowen Island Municipality to make sure that the conditions are good.