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Despite pandemic challenges, B.C. lakes stocked with millions of fish

Chris Stone
Fish culturist Chris Stone releases trout into a south Vancouver Island lake.

If you hook a trout this year, tip your cap to the Freshwater Fisheries Society of British Columbia.

The organization that stocks the province’s lakes with rainbow, coastal cutthroat and brook trout and kokanee salmon reared and delivered millions of young fish into 662 lakes, despite logistical challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Tim Yesaki, vice-president of operations for the Freshwater Fisheries Society, said a gap in restocking lakes would have had a “compounding effect” on fish stocks this year and in future years.

The society not only restocks lakes, but ventures into remote sites around larger lake systems to trap fish and extract eggs, which are taken to its six hatcheries around the province to raise for release as fry.

“It was a challenging year because of COVID,” Yesaki said. “At the start of the year, we were unsure how much of the work we could actually get done.”

He said the society had to develop its own safety protocols and sync those with other organizations. Many of the access points to lakes were closed, so work had to be done in co-operation with BC Parks, BC Hydro and the operators of gated trail systems and remote campsites.

But the 2020 work did get finished, with the society’s 100 staff delivering 5.63 million fish into 662 lakes across the province.

On Vancouver Island, the society stocked 58 lakes with 9,800 coastal cutthroat, 155,212 rainbow trout and 37,667 steelhead.

The Duncan hatchery was a key supplier of “catchable” fish. The rainbow trout are released into high-fishery, urban lake systems such as Elk, Langford, Prospect, Lookout and Durrance lakes in the Greater Victoria region.

Other hatcheries are located in Abbotsford, Summerland, Fort Steel and Clearwater. The society also operates a hatchery dedicated to sturgeon in Vanderhoof.

More than 311,000 steelhead smolts were also raised and released into four Island rivers and another six on the Lower Mainland.

The Duncan hatchery released 15,306 anadromous coastal cutthroat trout into the Oyster and Quinsam rivers on the Island.

The Freshwater Fisheries Society, which stocks the lakes for the provincial government, had initially expected a large financial hit as pandemic lockdowns took effect last spring.

The society funds its programs through the sale of freshwater angling licences. With severe restrictions early on in the pandemic, the society was bracing for losses. But when the province started encouraging locals to use parks and enjoy the outdoors, licence sales shot up.

During 2020, the society saw a 20 per cent increase in freshwater angling licences to more than 318,000. The biggest spike was in the 16-to-20 age group, which was up 64 per cent compared with 2019.

Yeskai said the increases more than made up for the 94 per cent decline in licences from European, American and other internationals who came to B.C. to fish in 2019.

A freshwater angling license costs $36 a year.

“More people were looking to get outside and enjoy healthy pursuits,” Yesaki said. “That showed in the increase in licences.”

Yeskai noted freshwater licence sales were up in every demographic last year except for those over age 65, which may have had to do with health concerns over the coronavirus spread.

He said although licence sales in B.C. have been “stable” over the past 15 years, there has an overall decline in angler participation across North America, largely due to competition from other outdoor pursuits such as cycling and hiking, but also barriers such as purchasing tackle and equipment and access to docks.

“We’re eager to recruit young anglers, and this year [the pandemic] helped get a lot more youth involved,” he said.

The society has started a fishing rod loan program, offering rods and tackle for free daily use at its hatcheries and some tourist information centres.

Because many potential angler don’t have boats, the society is also building docks and piers at lakes across the province. About 20 have been built to date, including at Porier Lake near Sooke, Prospect Lake in Saanich and Chemainus Lake.

“Sometimes it’s not about just catching a fish,” Yesaki said. “In our surveys, the top responses for motivation to go fishing is just getting out in nature and socializing.”

The society also upgraded five of its tanker trucks that haul and deliver fish to lakes.

The new trucks have been fitted with tanks manufactured by Campbell River Metal Fabricators. Each truck has three 250-gallon tanks for different species of fish and the hoses required to load at hatcheries and deliver the fish into lakes.

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