In the shadows of snow-capped peaks, Gord Madill navigates a winding dirt road through thick forest in a flatbed semi loaded with tanks carrying 48,000 chinook salmon smolts.
“This is not for the feint of heart,” announces the driver after finally reaching the lakeside at the head of Phillips Arm.
The final road to their home waters is the most precarious in the long journey for these year-old salmon. They represent the future of Phillips Lake chinook runs and no one rests easy until they are safely back in the water.
“Come back big!” says Rupert Gale, president of the Gillard Pass Fisheries Association, raising a toast with a cup of sparkling apple juice.
It’s late Monday afternoon and Gale is breathing easier as the salmon swim and jump in their temporary netpens, and so is Carol Schmitt.
She’s been up since 2:30 a.m. when Madill pulled his rig into the Omega Pacific Hatchery, just west of Port Alberni.
Located on Great Central Lake, in the mountainous heart of Vancouver Island, Omega Pacific is a privately-run hatchery operated by Schmitt and Bruce Kenny.
They’re passionate advocates for wild salmon and they’re working in co-operation with other organizations to save three chinook runs: Two on the West Coast on the Nahmint and Sarita rivers; and the Phillips River, on the the mainland coast, about 50 kilometres northwest of Campbell River.
“We’ve lost huge numbers of our wild salmon,” she says, during a break from checking the oxygen levels in the tanks carrying the smolts. “I know the solutions are out there…and this project will basically prove it.”
For the past few years Omega has been trying to overcome one of the biggest problems facing hatchery-reared chinook salmon: Survival.
While millions of these young chinook are released annually into the sea along B.C.’s South Coast, less than one per cent return to their home rivers as mature adults. Predation, disease, ocean conditions, over-fishing and loss of habitat are among the many reasons they don’t survive.
But Schmitt and Kenny believe they’ve identified the main reason for their demise: Most hatchery chinook are released too early. When this happens, explains Schmitt, their immune system is not fully developed and they are more susceptible to disease.
At the Omega hatchery, chinook are raised in very cold water and fed slowly to promote slower growth. This method attempts to mimic their natural growth cycle which provides the fish with a fully-developed immune system and enables them to enter the ocean better equipped to fight off disease, feed and avoid being eaten.
It’s also a method employed at chinook hatcheries in Washington State, notes Schmitt.
She says it’s also important to raise chinooks from eggs and sperm gathered from brood stock on the home rivers. Each is genetically different and she laughs while retelling how her Omega cohorts refer to the Hollywood-like appearances of the chinook smolts from the three river systems.
The salmon from the Nahmint are like Queen Latifah, bigger and more robust: the Sarita’s are like Drew Barrymore, smaller but still curvaceous; and the Phillip’s are like Paris Hilton, pretty and petite.
“All are beautiful, but they have their differences,” says Schmitt.
The road home
Approximately 12,000 chinook smolts are transferred to each of the four tanks on Madill’s flatbed. Fully loaded, he heads east on Highway 4, crosses “The Hump” to the Inland Island Highway and proceeds north on the Inland Highway past Campbell River to Menzies Bay, a trip roughly 190 kilometres long.
Awaiting Madill and the entourage from Omega is the MV Aurora Explorer and her crew from Marine Link Tours.
The flatbed is backed onto the 135-foot landing craft and then Captain Phillipe Menetrier pulls away from the dock to begin a 29-nautical-mile trip north through Seymour Narrows, to Nodales Channel and then up to the head of Phillips Arm.
Also on board is Marine Link owner Guy Adams who has established a nice niche market of moving cargo to remote places along the coast and hosting paying guests in the vessel’s state cabins.
Adams is also an avid fisherman who fully supports the work of the Gillard Pass Fisheries Association, and he’s donated the use of the vessel for this special voyage.
“You know, our family’s pretty good at killing fish, so I figure this is a way to give back,” he laughs.
But his support is no joke and Gale is grateful for the ride. Gale also points out the chinook trial would have never happened without the support of the association’s members, Omega and field staff from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
“This is a challenge…and they’re willing to let us try this,” he says of DFO’s support. The federal ministry also paid researchers to check over the salmon to ensure they’re free of pathogens.
The Aurora Explorer motors through calm waters on a gorgeous day as the sunshine illuminates the snowy peaks of the Coastal Mountains. Reaching the head of Phillips Arm, the vessel swings into Fanny Bay where two empty seapens await.
Half the fish will be deposited here where they will remain for a week in order to imprint themselves. This ensures the survivors return to their home river to spawn.
The fish are being split up, explains Gale, as part of the strategy to see which salmon best survive.
The other 24,000 fish are taken to the nearby site of an old logging camp. Madill drives off the landing ramp onto the beach and proceeds five kilometres up the logging road to Phillips Lake.
And now it gets tricky. The road into the lake is more suited to a passenger-sized 4×4, not an 18-wheeler. This is where experience counts as Madill expertly manoeuvres the flatbed over the twisting and narrow dirt road to the magnificent, mountain-ringed lakeside.
Gale and Schmitt are clearly relieved their valuable cargo has safely arrived. A large flexible hose is attached to the tank and the other end is deposited into the lake netpens where thousands and thousands of small, dark-coloured chinook smolts come spilling out into the fresh, cold water.
“They’re beautiful fish!” says DFO officer Barry Peters of Campbell River, who’s been supporting the project.
Better still, there are very few floaters – dead fish – and the salmon seem to be enjoying their new home. After a few minutes, they begin jumping and snapping up the huge mosquitoes.
“That’s a very good sign,” says Todd Scharff, a volunteer with the Gillard Pass association, who’s staying in the nearby cabin for a week to monitor and feed the smolts, as well as to keep them protected from a marauding river otter.
And now the waiting game begins. It will be five years before these chinook return to the Phillips River, one of a handful of coastal rivers that support all five species of Pacific salmon.
For the next four years, more salmon smolts will be released the same way. The goal of the trial is to create a self-sustaining run of Phillips chinook which will benefit the entire ecosystem as well as the guests who visit the nearby sports fishing lodges.
These lodges have also provided financial support to the project and fish farming companies – Mainstream Canada, Marine Harvest Canada, Creative Salmon and Grieg Seafood – have also supported the salmon rearing efforts at Omega.
With the smolts swimming and jumping in the water, Schmitt breaks out the sparkling apple juice and pours cups for all who raise a toast to this monumental effort.
The day is a success, but true success will only be known five years from now. That makes Schmitt nervous and she wonders if she’s done enough.
“Are we releasing enough fish? That makes my worry – is it enough?” she asks as the sun begins to dip below the mountain peak.