The Chinook Key

Story by Mark Hume

Carol Schmitt began to question the orthodoxy of salmon rearing in British Columbia one day when she went out on the mudflats of Great Central Lake, to save some stranded fry.

Ms. Schmitt, together with her business partner, Bruce Kenny, runs the Omega Pacific Hatchery, a collection of pipes, valves, troughs and rearing tanks on a clearing they hacked out of the forest on the shores of Great Central Lake, near Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island.

James Costello, Mainstream Canada’ sustainability officer, and Carol Schmitt, President of Omega Pacific Hatchery, take a look inside the Chinook tank at the hatchery on the shores of Great Central Lake. Photo by Grant Warkentin

She has been growing salmon, both for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the fish farming industry, for more than 30 years and has built a reputation for producing robust, healthy Chinook.

But it wasn’t always that way. Three decades ago her hatchery was struggling to keep its Chinook alive. That began to change when nature sent her a message about the best way to grow salmon.

The outlet of the lake her home and hatchery looks out on is controlled by an antiquated dam and there are often sudden draw downs, when water is released.

In Great Central Lake, you have these vast zones of snags that are just prime nursery areas, she said. When the water drops, that is where the fry get trapped, in the pools around the snags.

So Ms. Schmitt, who spends her days tending the salmon in her care at the hatchery, put on her gum boots and started dip netting wild fish out of the pools where they were trapped, to move them to the main lake.

What she saw surprised her. In pool after pool she was finding small Chinook. It was late September, and if wild Chinook behaved the way millions of hatchery Chinook produced by the DFO do, they should have migrated to the sea months earlier.

Carol Schmitt (L) tags Chinook in March 2011. Photo by Rune Giskeodegard

DFO releases about 25 million Chinook smolts each spring, in April and May. Those fish are known as S-0’s, for smolts-zero, because they have gone to sea before they have spent one year in a hatchery.

DFO, which runs 23 major and about 300 small hatcheries in B.C., collects eggs from brood stock in the fall and releases its S-0 Chinook at about 8 months of age – supposedly to coincide with the out migration of wild stocks.

But what Ms. Schmitt was finding in the lake were lots of Chinook that were a year old, so-called S-1 fish. And they had not yet achieved smoltification, which is when the fish transform physiologically, changing from fry to smolts, as they prepare to move from a freshwater environment to saltwater.

I twigged to this when I was catching Chinook in September, October. . .I thought, hey, wait a minute, she said. We are growing our fish too fast.

At the time the Omega Hatchery had been having trouble with high mortality rates among its Chinook. The fish looked healthy, but when they were moved to ocean net pens to grow out, for placement in fish farms, many of them would die from vibriosis, a bacterial disease which attacks fish in salt or brackish water.

Vibriosis is lethal when fish don’t have strong immune systems. And the light that went on for Ms. Schmitt on the mudflats of Great Central Lake was simply this: if you grow your fish too fast, stimulating them with warm water and extra food, and if you release them too soon, their immune systems aren’t fully developed, and they can’t handle the change to saltwater.

So she started experimenting, and over the years developed what she thinks is the perfect formula, growing the Chinook slowly, in cold water,] in temperatures that match the streams in which the brood stock originated.

Ms. Schmitt also reduced the feed, to keep the fish from smolting too soon.

Her goal was to mimic nature in a hatchery tank.

I think we’ve done a pretty exact job of that, she says.

The result was that, by the late 1980’s, Omega Hatchery had demonstrated such phenomenal survival rates for its Chinook, that the fish farming industry moved broadly to using S-1’s.

But DFO resisted change.

For years Ms. Schmitt would show up at stream restoration planning meetings, and her calls for a switch to S-1’s were ignored.

DFO is getting .5 to 1 per cent returns on their releases of S-0’s, she said. I said, you are not growing them the way nature does, but they just ignored me.

In 2009, Ms. Schmitt and Mr. Kenny decided to change things. They broke their long silence about their frustrations with DFO, and went out and got some media attention.

After that, with sports anglers, guides and lodge operators calling for the government to at least give Ms. Schmitt’s approach a chance, DFO officials begrudgingly agreed to give Omega some Chinook eggs for a trial project.

This spring [2011] about 100,000 S-1 Chinook were released by Omega in three Vancouver Island rivers: the Sarita (50,0000) Phillips (50,000) and Nahmint (2,000).

Four fish farming companies – Mainstream Canada, Marine Harvest Canada, Creative Salmon and Grieg Seafood – joined in to help finance the project, when funding fell short. Without that backing from the aquaculture industry, Ms. Schmitt wouldn’t have had enough money to transport the fish to the release site, or to tag them. Tagging is extremely important because without it, there would be no way to distinguish the Omega fish from DFO fish. And Ms. Schmitt very much wants to have comparative data.

DFO typically sees about 1 per cent of the 400 million salmon it releases annually survive to return as adults. On the Sarita, where just 500 Chinook returned in 2010, the return rate is just 0.1 per cent. And at that low level, says Ms. Schmitt, DFO is accelerating the decline of Chinook by sticking with S-1’s.

She is predicting a return of between 3 and 10 per cent for the Omega fish. She says in Alaska, where S-1’s are routinely released, there have been return rates as high as 22 per cent.

If she can increase the return of Chinook to the three trial rivers by three to 10 times, Ms. Schmitt, hopefully, will have proved her case, and DFO will have to seriously consider making a massive shift in its Chinook stocking practices.

Carol Schmitt and Stefans Ochman release Chinook into the Sarita River, on Vancouver Island. - photo by Grant Warkentin

But the proof is two or three years away yet. The first signal should come from Alaska, where Vancouver Island Chinook are caught in commercial fisheries. If tagged Omega fish start to show up in that fishery, it will have proved that the S-1’s survived the transition to salt water, and that Ms. Schmitt was right when she stood on the mud flats and thought the key was in growing fish more slowly.

But she’s not waiting until then. Omega is pushing to be included in a DFO plan to try and restore Chinook runs to rivers in Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino, where stocks have largely vanished.

I won’t let up with these S-1’s, she says of the topic she is raising at every fish planning meeting she can get invited to. They want me to drop the topic. I said, not likely. No.

[Editor’s note: DFO refused to provide a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.]