Salmon Horizon Takes Wild Coho Conservation to New Heights

The winter sun illuminates their frozen breath, a dozen people walk cautiously through the frozen waters of the River Trent in search of salmon.

Loaded with equipment and armed with wooden poles, with their eyes lowered and attentive, they test each step on slippery rocks as they navigate the currents increased by the November rains.

Every fall, more than 25 volunteers join an expedition to a remote section of the Vancouver Island river to help the Courtenay Game and Fishing Protective Association catch spawning coho to take back to their new hatchery at Comox Lake.

It is not an easy task. The ponds and spawning beds where coho prefer to gather are located at the bottom of the steep slopes of the river canyon.

Catching the live fish and transporting them along the river and then over a 150-meter cliff to a waiting transport truck requires coordination and effort.

“It’s pretty strenuous work,” Courtenay Fish and Game member Greg Sawchuck said as he made his way down the steep, muddy, rocky slope with a yellow nylon rope in one hand and an orange brush-clearing chainsaw in the other. .

“We used to put [the coho] in plastic bags full of water and having to carry them in backpacks.”

Courtenay Fish and Game Club volunteers do everything they can to conserve wild coho in the Trent River on Vancouver Island. Video: Rochelle Baker/National Observer of Canada

Each fall, Courtenay Fish and Game volunteers do their best to capture live spawning salmon in a secluded stretch of the Trent River to raise them at their new Comox Lake hatchery. #SalmonConservation

Today, the precious coho travels the last leg of its monumental journey on the “salmon skyline,” a makeshift fish gondola designed by the fishing and hunting club.

The horizon consists of a large blue plastic barrel filled with water suspended from a steel wire. A vehicle-driven system of pulleys and ropes at the top of the hill moves the cable car up and down the slope.

Once on board, the system allows live salmon to rise quickly above the trees to the top of the canyon, with as little stress as possible, said Sawchuck, who leads the operations team with a walkie-talkie.

However, getting the fish up the hill is Phase 2 of the operation. The crew working the river below has to catch them first, said Wayne White, the club’s conservation president.

Carrying nets, ropes and specialized equipment, the capture crew fords the river or climbs its tangled banks until they reach the salmon’s favorite resting places.

Divided into two teams, their function is to “shoot” or “fish” the coho.

Lining up along the stream, team one begins stirring the water with poles to corral the fish into a gill net wielded by group two, some of whom swim in the frozen river to prevent the gear from becoming tangled or let the fish escape.

Volunteers cast coho into nets downstream. Photo Rochelle Baker / National Observer of Canada

“Once the fish get caught in the net, you have to get them out quickly or they will drown,” White said.

The crew places each salmon into a recycled perforated plastic tube that is immersed in the river to provide them with fresh, oxygenated water.

Someone then has to drag the submerged “salmon-colored submarines” by ropes upstream in the current to bring the fish to the base terminal and ride the tram to the top, White said.

“That’s probably the hardest job because the rocks are slippery and there are some pretty big boulders and that kind of stuff,” he said.

“Once they’re on the horizon, it’s pretty easy. You just put them in the barrel and carry them up the hill.”

Zac Ohlman tows plastic tubes containing live salmon in the River Trent. Photo Rochelle Baker / National Observer of Canada

The fish are met by a crew at the top of the cliff who breaks down the barrel, grabs the dark-headed, scarlet-bellied fish and lowers it into an oxygenated steel tank on a transport trailer. The barrel is then sent down the hill to pick up the next batch.

Once all the fish are harvested and their health assured, they begin a 45-minute drive along bumpy forest roads before speeding down the highway to their final destination on the club’s property at Comox Lake.

The fish and game club has a license from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to raise up to 50,000 Trent River coho salmon eggs to improve recreational fishing in the watershed, he said.

Each female salmon usually carries between 2,000 and 2,500 eggs.

The club tries to raise around 60 coho a year. Attention is paid to getting the right mix of genders because the semen (semen) of two male fish is needed to fertilize the eggs of one female.

Volunteer Otto Winnig loads a coho salmon into an oxygenated tank on a transport truck headed to a hatchery on Lake Comox. Photo Rochelle Baker / National Observer of Canada

After coho eggs are harvested and fertilized in November, they are placed in egg trays washed under running water to develop.

The first few weeks are critical because incubating eggs are especially fragile, White said.

“For the first month or so, they are very, very susceptible to noise or light and that can lead to death.”

But after that initial stage, the eggs will be intentionally “shocked” by volunteers who pour them from bucket to bucket to harden them, turned over just as winter floods would in a natural river system, White said. .

Coho fry typically hatch around March and are placed in tanks to grow in batches until release in early summer.

As soon as the little fish arrive in the tanks, the club’s group of dedicated volunteers hand-feed them twice a day and monitor their health and progress.

The fry are released upstream in June, to prevent them from competing with their wild brethren confined to the lower reaches of the river next to a series of waterfalls.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) member Jacob Melville helps catch broodstock in the Trent River. Rochelle Baker / National Observer of Canada

The Courtenay Club has run a hatchery program on the River Trent since 1979.

The new hatchery was needed after water quality deteriorated in the former township of Puntledge. The new, larger hatchery is only in its second year of operation and is a centerpiece of the conservation program, White said.

Once fully operational, the club hopes to also raise 50,000 coho to release into the Puntledge River system.

The club has a long history on the River Trent, but its fishing is in decline, White said.

“If you talk to the old guys who fished in the past, there were a lot more coho [and] Rainbow trout [salmon] throughout the canyon.”

Scott Kille wades through the River Trent in November to help capture spawning coho alive for the Courtenay Game and Fish Hatchery. Photo Rochelle Baker / National Observer of Canada

None of the club’s extensive conservation efforts would be possible without its dedicated volunteers, he said.

Some help because they gained relevant skills in their work lives, but most join because they love fishing and are committed to preservation, White said.

“We have a lot of people who are recreational fishermen and a lot of members who are commercial fishermen who want to give back,” he said.

Some people don’t even fish, they just love salmon and help at the hatchery, he added, noting that many become attached to farming.

“People love to feed them, stand there and watch them.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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