Thousands of chinook smolts are released into the Robertson Creek Hatchery raceway on Thursday, April 19, where they will be held for five days to imprint. ELENA RARDON PHOTO

Thousands of chinook smolts are released into the Robertson Creek Hatchery raceway on Thursday, April 19, where they will be held for five days to imprint. ELENA RARDON PHOTO

Alberni Valley fish hatchery releases second batch of chinook yearlings

Omega Pacific Hatchery works with DFO on innovative test fishery

Omega Pacific Hatchery has released its second group of chinook yearlings as part of a comparative trial to demonstrate its success in raising chinook salmon.

Volunteers and hatchery employees released 68,000 yearling chinook salmon from the Robertson Creek Hatchery raceway on Monday, April 23.

This is the second release in a trial where the hatchery will grow comparative groups of chinook juveniles as part of a collaborative trial with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). In 2017, Omega Pacific released 78,000 juveniles directly into Boot Lagoon. This year, the chinook were held at the raceway for five days, so that fish would imprint and return to the same location. 795 dead fish were recovered over the five days at the hatchery, but Schmitt said the bulging and bloody eyes were evidence of a mechanical error, from blunt force in offloading, rather than illness or disease.

Omega Pacific Hatchery, located at Great Central Lake, uses the innovative method of the S1 chinook smolt—the hatchery holds the fish for a year in freshwater so that their immune systems can develop, then releases them as yearlings. At this time, Omega Pacific’s chinook enhancement program is the only program that delivers consistently higher survival rates, says owner/operator Carol Schmitt.

A Pacific Salmon Foundation review noted that Omega Pacific’s S1 smolts have a 10 times greater survival rate than the S0 smolts raised and released by the DFO.

A third group of S1 chinook smolts is currently growing at the hatchery for a release next year.

Omega Pacific Hatchery fish will be recognizeable when they are caught in the Alberni Valley because they have all been tagged with coded wire. Schmitt said last Monday that this is the result of “13 years of persistence” on the part of the Omega Pacific Hatchery.

“It’s tangible,” she said. “We’ll have our first returns in a couple of years.”

Fish released from the hatchery will provide vital fishing opportunities for the Alberni Valley, as well as the rest of British Columbia and Alaska.

Chris Wynans of the Port Alberni Salmon Festival Society was present on Monday to watch the fish released from the hatchery. The society donated $14,000 to Omega Pacific Hatchery earlier this year to help tag the yearlings with coded wire.

READ: Port Alberni Salmon Fest contributes to salmon enhancement

“All these fish have a tag,” said Wynans. “So when the fishermen catch these fish, they’ll know they came from here.”

The Port Alberni Salmon Festival increased the cost of tickets for fishers last year in order to raise funds for local enhancement projects, including Omega Pacific Hatchery.

“We wanted to partner with programs that actually produce fish,” said Wynans.

Schmitt said that after almost 40 years growing chinook, she still loves her job today as much as when she first started.

“We hope as things progress, our ability to grow S1 chinooks using our naturally occuring water will become more than just trials, and instead part of rebuilding the many chinook stocks,” she said.

elena.rardon@albernivalleynews.com