Fish in jeopardy: chinook smolts’ survival hangs in balance

A private hatchery near Port Alberni might have to kill all 65,000 smolts it has stream-raised because DFO won't approve their methods.

The survival of 65,000 Chinook smolts is in the hands of  Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as an Alberni Valley fish hatchery that has raised the fish will euthanize them if its donation is not accepted.

Omega Pacific Hatchery co-owner Carol Schmitt grew stream type chinook, known as S1, which are fish spawned in the fall and kept in freshwater for a year. The one-year-old chinooks are descendents from adult salmon spawned at the Robertson Creek Fish Hatchery. They are now ready to be released.

However, all chinook that has DFO permission to be released locally have been ocean type chinooks, S0, which spawn in the fall, are grown fast and released in the spring. About 20 million of these chinooks are released annually and they have a survival rate of 0.5 per cent.

Schmitt said the salmon she raises would have a five to 10 per cent survival rate.

“They are the same fish but grown differently,” Schmitt said, adding disease is not an issue as her fish are screened and all are healthy.

“The only difference is we take a year to raise our fish and S0s are grown fast so they can be released in the spring.”

Schmitt explained the stream type chinook has a higher survival rate because it mimics the natural way chinook naturally grow, resulting in a more mentally developed fish with a better immune system than those that are raised and released within a few months.

All chinook raised and released on Vancouver Island are the faster growing ocean type and must be authorized by the DFO. Schmitt’s requests to release smaller amounts in the past have been rejected. She said  DFO officials argued that they tried stream type chinook in the past and it failed.

“They did stream type fish for a few years but it was still a compressed maturation,” Schmitt said. “The government said ‘we tried it and it didn’t work,’ but you have to give the fish a year.”

Schmitt added that there is no harm in the DFO allowing Omega to release their fish and seeing what happens, as the end goal is to increase chinook returns. She plans to monitor the return of the chinook if she is allowed to release them.

Schmitt said the 65,000 smolts are worth $50,000.

Alberni sport fishing advisory committee vice-chair Bob Cole supports Schmitt’s request.

“It’s an alternative method with a high survival rate,” Cole said.

“The trouble with the DFO in their system of doing things is they have a certain protocol that’s not open to change.”

Schmitt has received letters of support for the release from the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, Port Alberni city council and the Barkley Sound Wild Salmon Working Group. She said there is nowhere else she can the donate the fish.

Calls to the DFO were not returned by press time.

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