After piking one last stinking, decomposing chum salmon carcass and watching it ride a short conveyor belt into a tote filled with hundreds like it, Qualicum Beach Streamkeeper Don Lyster straightened up and stretched while standing waist-deep in a ditch at Little Qualicum Fish Hatchery on Thursday morning.
“It’s going to be a while before I eat another salmon,” he deadpanned.
Lyster and fellow volunteers were participating in the Streamkeepers’ annual Fish Toss, in which tons of spawned-out chum are removed from the hatchery’s canals and dumped far upstream in Little Qualicum River.
“We’ve been doing this for about a decade,” said David James, Streamkeepers president. “It’s encouraged by Fisheries and Oceans Canada because it’s the best way of encouraging chum salmon, in particular, to move farther up the river system and to lay their eggs and spawn up into streams where they wouldn’t normally go.”
The fish toss was held across two days, Wednesday and Thursday. Filling totes and hauling them with a truck provided by DFO, the Streamkeepers and other volunteers hauled the fish carcasses upstream, to areas beyond current spawning grounds. They are then “tossed” back into the water to add nutrients and DNA to the Little Qualicum River system.
Thanks in part to a record return of chum this year, the program has shown a documented impact already, James said. “Because of the high numbers, we’re getting a lot of fish we can move,” he said. “But we’re finding a number of spots we normally deposit the carcasses have already got chum that for the first time are pushing and looking for spawning grounds upriver.
“This is good; it means our work in previous years is having an effect.”
This year, he said, crews went all the way to the Whiskey Creek area to find a suitable location to dump the chum. James estimated the two days of work produced 12 tons of fish.
Crews of volunteers represented the Streamkeepers and their Parksville-based counterparts from the Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society, which has several shared members.
For the first year, James said, members of the Mid-Island Castaways Fly Fishing Club donned chest waders and joined the fun.
“A number of their volunteers helped us,” James said. “They recognize they like catching fish, and this is a way to help grow them.”
In another first, James added, a half-dozen students from the Kwalikum Secondary School outdoor program also took part in Wednesday’s toss.
“They did most of the work of loading and unloading about 500 fish,” he said. “They had a great time, and we really enjoyed seeing them take part in this project. Tom Forrester, one of the long-standing fisheries guys here, was standing in there forking up fish with all the students around him, and he had a big smile on his face.”