Port Alberni holds the claim to “Salmon Capital of the World.” It also holds what one enhancement steward says is the best-kept secret in the world: the answer to declining chinook salmon stocks.
The Omega Pacific Hatchery is an independent facility located near Great Central Lake that uses innovative methods to raise chinook yearlings. Their chinook enchancement program is currently the only hatchery program to deliver consistent higher survival rates, says owner and operator Carol Schmitt, yet the small hatchery has been having difficulty finding almost any support or funding.
Schmitt appeared before Port Alberni city council last month asking for council to write in support of the hatchery to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans regarding their chinook enhancement program.
”The chinook on Vancouver Island have two life stages,” Schmitt explained. “One is where they go out to the ocean right away. Whereas a lot of the other chinook actually spend an additional year in freshwater before they migrate to the ocean.
Our chinook that we were growing would be the additional chinook, in freshwater.”
Back when the hatchery was built in 1987, chinook juvenile survivals to adults for enhancement releases were low, and had continued to decline for 30 years. “All our stocks are now listed as stocks of concern,” Scmitt said.
After years of asking to participate in the chinook enhancement program, Omega Pacific finally brought in its first chinook eggs for enhancement in 2009. All were coded wire-tagged. In 2013, a stock assessment reported substantial significant high numbers of Omega Pacific chinook.
“The preliminary marine survivals were reported at greater than five percent without even having the five-year-old tag recoveries in the ocean,” said Schmitt. “We haven’t got all the information, they could very well be at seven and a half or eight percent.”
The hatchery is now participating in a trial where they are growing a comparative group of 100,000 juveniles over four years to Robertson Creek Hatchery. The DFO will not be assisting in any of the costs for the trial, which will total around $400,000 over the course of the four years.
“At five percent marine survival, if they were captured in recreational fishery, that would be 20,000 fish,” said Schmitt. “And the regional district has a report that $264 is the [direct] rod-caught value, so that would be $5.2 million, and indirect that’s 2.4 times. It’s $12 million for the $400,000 we would be investing.”
The hatchery has been having trouble coming across the funding. Although the Pacific Salmon Foundation recently stepped in to cover the costs of tag installation and fin clipping, the first group still needs to be transported with lab costs for their upcoming release in April, at a cost of approximately $85,000. So far, the hatchery has come up with $50,000.
“Over the last two years, ourselves and West Coast Aquatic have applied for probably no less than 12 applications to get funding from pots of money that are made for enhancement, but we have been unsuccessful,” said Schmitt.
The DFO has a collaborative agreement for the trial, and the wording for this agreement has prevented the hatchery and West Coast Acquatic from accessing any of the trial costs from the many programs by the DFO designed to help organizations with enhancement costs. “We are a registered hatchery under the Public Involvement Program, however we have not been provided with any funds which similarly assist all local facilities,” explained Schmitt.
Schmitt has asked that the department amend the wording on the agreement, but they will not address the wording preventing them from accessing the funds needed for the trial.
Schmitt says it is a “bewilderment” that the department seems to be derailing the trial by creating an almost impossible situation for a small hatchery like Omega Pacific to find the entire costs elsewhere. “We need to become fundraisers,” she said.
Schmitt has started a GoFundMe account called “Saving the Iconic King Salmon in Port Alberni,” which has received some community donations already.
“We can see if we can raise some of the money to pay for this initial group, and then we have these other three groups that are coming up behind it,” she said. “In consideration that we’ve been the only hatchery to have these high survivals, which is really significant, maybe we can convince [the DFO] to cover some of the costs.”
In the meantime, Schmitt said, she is planning a meeting for later this month. The president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation will be chairing the meeting, where Schmitt has asked for a comparison between Omega Pacific’s tags and the DFO’s tags.
“I’ve asked for the raw data,” Schmitt emphasized. Her hope is that this information will make the DFO feel obligated to move faster if it shows greater results.
Schmitt said the trial shouldn’t be a necessity at all. Omega Pacific’s returns are similar to the wild, she emphasized. In four years, they could increase adult chinook returns from 200 to 1500. In another four years, the number would be greater than 3,000. “Really, they should be using this to rebuild stocks,” she said. “The government has had this information for 15 years. In the meantime, they’ve started five new trials with our results.”
Fisheries and Oceans production hatcheries have grown groups of yearling chinook in the past, but have had problems which led to the fish being euthanized partway through the rearing, or those released had no greater results.
“I think this is the most important information to come across the federal government’s desk in the past 25 years,” Schmitt said. “We have grown close to 300,000 of these yearling fish with no assistance from them.”
She asked council to write to Minister LeBlanc and request that future plans by Fisheries and Oceans to re-build the chinook stocks with yearlings include, enlist and work fairly and collaboratively with the hatchery.
“We feel that they may want to run with it and do it at their own hatcheries again, but they haven’t demonstrated that they can get the survivals,” she explained.
Council agreed to write this letter in support of Omega Pacific Hatchery.
The hatchery has now received around 20 letters in support, representing upwards of 20,000 people since 2009, said Schmitt.
“They know that their program isn’t working,” Schmitt said.
“We can grow the fish. We just want to participate when the government opens up the gate.”