When a landslide 33 storeys high cut off the Fraser River in June 2019, the rock and debris trapped hundreds of thousands of salmon for two seasons, restricting their access to spawning grounds.
Now, from the rubble of Big Bar landslide, new life is springing.
At Inch Creek in Mission, the town near the bend in the river at the east end of the Fraser Valley, the rescued offspring of those endangered salmon swim in a series of plastic pools.
Just juveniles, these fish are barely larger than a little finger, yet they represent a huge effort to save salmon populations in the Fraser before it is too late.
The fingerlings reached Mission Creek Hatchery because of the big bar emergency response effort.
For the second consecutive season since the slide, a team of scientists and fish conservationists rushed to the site of the disaster and salvaged eggs and milt — fish sperm — from the trapped, spawning salmon.
The eggs and milt were transported back to the hatchery in the back of pick-up trucks.
After maturing in the pools since September, this second crop of fry is now mere months away from being released back into the creek, where they will swim down the Fraser River and back to the ocean.
The effort to save these salmon is just the latest in creative conservation efforts made by Inch Creek Hatchery.
A key figure in both the Big Bar emergency response and the Inch Creek enhancement program is Mary-Beth Fagan. Fighting for these juvenile salmon since before they were born, Fagan also operates the sockeye section, one of four separate salmon-enhancement efforts, at the hatchery which has been running since 1983.
Emergency efforts aside, the program typically starts in September when Fagan and her team go to the top of Pitt Lake to catch spawning salmon, which are harvested for their milt and eggs. The operation is intense. It often requires a crew of 10 working 10-hour days gathering hundreds of salmon to meet a target of 625,000 eggs.
Once the fish eggs and milt are harvested, they are transported back to the hatchery and mixed together, then water is added to activate the milt. The fertilized eggs eventually hatch into young fish, alevins and, when their yolk sack is used up, become tiny fish that are barely larger than a mosquito.
After four months, the fish are released back into the creek, where they imprint, before they head downstream to the lake for one year. When they’re finally big enough to face the perils of open water, they swim to the ocean.
“The program increases the odds of survival because we take the death that would occur in nature and reduce the pressure of it. So pressures like predation, flooding events,” said Fagan, whose COVID mask has a salmon print in the left corner. “And then we feed them good quality food and we look at them every day and make sure they’re doing well.”
Typically, 90 per cent of the captured eggs make it from egg to fry to the Fraser River every year. However, this can depend on the year. In 2019, the hatchery released 426,516 fry out of 502, 337 captured eggs.
The Inch Creek hatchery program is just one effort in a much larger campaign to save salmon.
“We’re just a portion of the solution,” said Fagan. “There’s a huge picture and we’re like a cog in the wheel and a tool in the toolbox.”
The program falls under the Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s salmonid enhancement program, which encompasses 15 hatcheries across B.C and also includes habitat restoration and community stewardship programs.
However, despite over 50 years of work, salmon populations continue to plummet, alongside salmon diversity.
This is a reality Teresa Kelly is all too familiar with. As acting operations manager at Inch Creek sockeye site and a member of the Leq’a:mel First Nation, fish and fishing is a way of life for Kelly. In years past when she would go fishing, she said the catch would be so huge it would burst the net. But in recent years, it’s been a challenge to catch a single fish. Despite the conservation work done at the hatchery, Kelly said she doesn’t think that alone can turn the tide.
“While this project [at Inch Creek] is great in many ways for the conservation of species, nothing around here is really making a huge difference,” she said. “We just don’t know what’s going on out there in the ocean.”
Kelly said that, while the science is still undecided, there is speculation that “the blob,” an upwell of warm water in the ocean, has adversely affected nutrient levels and, therefore, salmon survival. She also says that logging, flooding and competition for limited food among fish species could be worsening the problem.
To Fagan and Kelly, who spend months feeding, growing and caring for their juvenile salmon, this is heartbreaking. In spite of that, they remain hopeful and determined. In July, Fagan will head back to Big Bar Landslide to collect the eggs of spawning, trapped salmon. In beginning the cycle all over again, Fagan and Kelly are hopeful that this year will be better than the last.
“What keeps me going is a love for the fish,” said Kelly. “The salmon are strong, determined. They have a will to survive and they’re always looking for solutions. They’re simply amazing. It would be nice to give back to them.”
Video by Kathryn Helmore & Jayden Gross.