‘More dead fish than live fish’: Dry conditions a concern for Port Coquitlam salmon hatchery

Click to play video: '2022 drought causing major problems for Metro Vancouver salmon hatchery'
2022 drought causing major problems for Metro Vancouver salmon hatchery
This fall's drought, interrupted only briefly by some rain, is wreaking havoc with a volunteer-run salmon hatchery in Metro Vancouver. Julie Nolin reports. – Nov 17, 2022

Staff and volunteers at the Hyde Creek Hatchery in Port Coquitlam, B.C., are raising the alarm about the number of dead fish observed in the watershed.

Biologist and volunteer Helen Howes said a dry autumn has left salmon — mostly chum and some coho — idling or stranded in parts of Hyde Creek, where water has dried up or dropped to 10 per cent of what’s typical for this time of year.

“We had one pretty good rain and we had water in the creek and fish came up, and as of about three days ago – earlier this week – it just stopped,” she explained.

“The fish that are in the creek have nowhere to go, they can’t spawn.”

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Howes said surveyors have documented “more dead fish than live fish” in parts of Hyde Creek, and while conditions remain better upstream, the hatchery is concerned it could lose “a whole season of chum.”

“If the fish have spawned already and there’s eggs in the gravel, are they viable? Will they survivor without water?” she said.

Staff and volunteers remain hopeful that the rain forecast for Port Coquitlam next week will arrive and turn the situation around, she added.

Click to play video: 'Drought creates catastrophic conditions for spawning salmon'
Drought creates catastrophic conditions for spawning salmon

Eric Kukulowicz of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) salmon enhancement program said it’s hard to attribute local fish mortality to the dry conditions. He provides technical support to workers at the hatchery.

“The fish do naturally die at this time of year anyways so when you see them dying in the creek it’s hard to say to specifically this is because of the drought that we’re in,” he explained.

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“They’re going to spawn and they’re going to die. The only way you know is if there’s a very high level of pre-spawn mortality, and attributing that to the weather is hard because there’s a number of issues.”

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The Hyde Creek Watershed is found in an urban area and suffers from some pollution, Kukulowicz and Howes confirmed.

Kukulowicz said he suspected that some of the struggling salmon flagged by Howes were “spawned out” already, but dry conditions remain a possible contributing factor.

“This is a smaller watershed and it’s been affected by a lot of different things and it’s more susceptible to these pressures like climatic and weather pressures as well,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Dozens of dead salmon fry spotted in Metro Vancouver stream'
Dozens of dead salmon fry spotted in Metro Vancouver stream

Staff and volunteers at the hatchery are now working with DFO to harvest the eggs from some of the salmon and fertilize them.

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“I’m not an alarmist particularly, I think that nature is resilient, but this is a troubling year. If we have a couple of troubling years in a row, it’s a dire situation,” Howes said.

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The hatchery is now looking for alternative water sources, she added. It has sometimes drawn from the City of Port Coquitlam’s supply, but is only permitted to do so in emergencies.

“We have a ground water well here that we are currently using for our water supply but should that ever fail or the aquifer drop, this hatchery will not be viable,” Howes told Global News. “Water is our most important resource at this hatchery.”

Every year, the hatchery collects chum and coho eggs, hatches them in local school classrooms as part of an educational program, and repopulates Hyde Creek and the associated watershed on Burke Mountain. About 25,000 coho and 15,000 chum are raised each season, according to its website.

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