The Birkenhead Fish Hatchery sits on the banks of the river, just north of Mount Currie. The main way to access the hatchery is over a suspension bridge, one that was built in the mid-90s over one weekend by volunteers after the road bridge was washed out by flood. The fish hatchery has survived throughout the ages, even when the federal government decided not to run it anymore, or when the flood waters were a foot deep in the pumphouse, or when the building was broken into and all the scientific weighing equipment was stolen. The hatchery has just always been there, and volunteers such as Hugh Naylor and Dan Carson have always made sure that it stayed that way. For one reason: to raise fish.
One can imagine the devastation felt two weeks ago in the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 10 th , when hatchery caretaker Paul phoned Hugh to tell him that the hatchery was silent. There was no water running, and when there's no water running the Chinook alevin (4-6 months old) being raised in trays cannot survive. Sure enough, by mid-day on Saturday as we desperately tried to fix the pipe that had burst after freezing, there were only about 100 alevin showing any signs of life, instead of the 60,000 healthy fish that were alive and well the day before. It turned out that the pipes had frozen, burst, and taken away the pressure required to feed the alevin trays.
Miraculously, the three trays of Coho salmon eggs survived, and will once again be found in Pemberton and Whistler school classrooms in the next few weeks, as part of the Salmonids-in-the-classroom program.
The Chinook salmon of the Birkenhead River are a genetically unique stock of the Lower Fraser River system, with silvery scales, whitish flesh, and a spawning run that cannot be labelled spring or fall - they run right through the summer, peaking in August. Last year we saw 240 adult fish return to spawn, which is considered a fairly small run. Indeed, these fish face enormous odds from the time they leave the river as smolts to years later when they return to their natal stream to spawn. Which is why the Birkenhead Fish Hatchery has been enhancing this stock, taking 10-15 adult fish out the river in August, removing the eggs and milt, artificially raising them in the hatchery, and releasing them back into the river in the spring, in order to ensure the long-term survival of this stock.
When the flood hit the Sea to Sky region in mid-October, it was obvious that few, if any, wild Chinook would survive. On Oct. 20 th , the adult fish would have already spawned-out and died, and the eggs buried in gravel were probably washed away. It was one of those times where those involved in fisheries in Pemberton are thankful that the Pemberton Wildlife Association still runs the hatchery on a volunteer basis, with one part-time paid manager.
Now that the hatchery stock is gone as well, the situation is deteriorating for the Chinook salmon. Approximately five years from now, it could be that the spawning run will be very minimal.
And so the Chinook alevin have left us earlier than usual this year. We always know that when the fish are released in the spring, it is unlikely that we will see more than a few-hundred adult fish return to the Birkenhead out of the 60,000 released. This year there won't be any fish to release in the spring, but thus is the power of Mother Nature. She flooded the hatchery, then froze it solid this year, but that is still not as powerful as the challenges she presents to those little Chinook as they make their way out to sea. It is amazing that we see any fish return to spawn at all.
It is truly an honour to work with such tenacious living beings as the Birkenhead Chinook.
Monthly Bird Walk - The next bird walk will take place on Saturday, Feb. 7. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.
Written by: Lisa Helmer