British Columbia

'A chance at life': Salmon fry rescue underway on Vancouver Island

Thousands of salmon fry that would otherwise die are being rescued from drying river and creek beds in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.

Thousands of salmon fry that would otherwise die are being saved from drying river beds

The salmon fry captured in pools of water in the riverbed are released in open water in Lake Cowichan. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Wading through knee-deep water, Parker Jefferson dips a homemade net below the surface, hoping to capture some of the hundreds of salmon fry that scatter in every direction.

"They can hide in those big rocks, so we have to sneak up on them," says the volunteer with the Cowichan River and Lake Stewardship Society.

This is an urgent rescue operation. Thousands of salmon fry that hatched in February or March are now stranded as the rivers and creeks of the Cowichan watershed on Vancouver Island dry up.

The society has been helping the young fish, mostly coho, make it to Lake Cowichan for a number of years.

But the dry conditions are particularly dire this spring, prompting volunteers to wade into the water that remains much earlier than in the past.

Volunteer Carsten Hunter rescues salmon fry from a pool of water left behind as Vancouver Island's Robertson River dries up. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

"Just a few years ago, it would have been July that we would have to do this, and now we are doing it in May," Jefferson says. 

"Our mission is to try to preserve the runs of salmon in this system. So for us, we are giving them a chance at life."

On top of several years of drought conditions, the rivers that feed Lake Cowichan have also filled up with gravel that has washed down from heavily-logged hillsides, he added.

'Whoa, what happened?'

For volunteers like Carsten Hunter, who grew up in the area, watching the salmon decline has been difficult.

"It was so bountiful, you know in the 1970s and the 1980s," he says as he shakes salmon fry from a net into a waiting bucket of water.

"Now it's just like, whoa, what happened?"

The region sees about 35 per cent less rainfall in the summer than it did in the 1980s, and the snowpack tends to be lighter in the winter, Jefferson said.

Parker Jefferson, with the Cowichan River and Lake Stewardship Society, says rainfall has drastically declined in recent years. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

"This is a climate change adoption strategy for us to keep the ecosystem going," he says.

"The salmon are the canary in our coal mine. We lose them, the whole ecosystem of the riparian area is going to collapse."

Once there are hundreds of salmon fry swimming in each bucket, the fish are transported to Lake Cowichan and released into open water where they are expected to thrive.

Despite the challenges of changing weather conditions, Jefferson is optimistic the relocation program is helping.

Salmon returns in the Cowichan River system have been strong in recent years, despite rivers and creeks that are disappearing earlier each year.

Air bubbles are pumped into the buckets so the salmon fry can survive until they are released into the lake. (Megan Thomas/CBC)