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Island drought imperils salmon-spawning grounds

Oct 07 2012

Rivers and streams throughout Vancouver Island are drying to trickles after a two-month drought and fears are growing that salmon will not be able to reach spawning grounds.

Andrew Thomson, federal Fisheries and Oceans south coast area director, said his department, helped by volunteers, salmon enhancement societies and First Nations, are searching for ways to help the fish if rain doesn't fall.

"Trapping and trucking them is going to work in a couple of situations and we are going to start doing that at Cowichan this week because of the critical importance of that river," Thomson said.

By late Friday, 200 fish had been transported and about 450 fish had made it up the Cowichan on their own, said Rodger Hunter, a member of the Cowichan Water Board.

But trapping and trucking - meaning fish are caught and taken to spawning grounds - will not work in many rivers, Thomson said. Other options include fishing restrictions, he said.

The east coast of Vancouver Island is faring margin-ally better than the west coast, as there are more river systems with storage through lakes, weirs and dams, Thomason said.

"But it's still critical everywhere on the Island. We need rain."

No rain is forecast for the next two weeks.

Chinook salmon are pooling in the ocean waiting to spawn and, unless rain arrives soon, the drought may also affect coho, steelhead and chum, Thomson said.

Peter McCully, manager of Goldstream Hatchery, said the situation is desperate in the larger rivers, such as Goldstream and Sooke, and small streams on the Saanich Peninsula.

"It's bad for the chinook salmon because they're starting to come in right now and in two weeks that small window of opportunity will be pretty well over. The coho are more adaptable," McCully said.

"In Sooke, if they don't get [chinook] eggs in the next week or so, they may lose the run," he said.

The bright spot is the San Juan River in Port Renfrew where the enhancement group has its quota of eggs, he said.

The main Goldstream run of chum salmon is not expected until November and McCully is hoping there will be rain by then.

Goldstream Hatchery works closely with Saanich Peninsula First Nations and is looking for advice from them, McCully said.

"We are asking if they have any magic we can use," he said.

Frank Collins, Tahsis Salmon Enhancement Society president, said the upper part of the Tahsis River is dry.

DFO did a count this summer and found thousands of chinook fry from last year's spawn, in addition to young coho and steelhead, Collins said.

"The next time they went, they were all dead," he said. "Thank goodness we do have a hatchery and maybe we can save some from this year's run. ... We are salvaging what we can."

Chinook eggs have been collected from fish in the adjacent Leiner River and the group is considering bringing in a seiner, catching the fish waiting in the ocean and taking them to the hatchery for two days in fresh water so the eggs can be harvested, Collins said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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