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Unique salmon run on Vancouver Island gets a helping hand

One of B.C.'s most unique and labour-intensive salmon runs in Mill Bay involves moving thousands of fish upstream by hand, one by one.

One of B.C.'s most labour-intensive salmon runs is underway right now in Mill Bay

A volunteer moves salmon from Shawnigan Creek to a truck that will be driven upstream. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

Everyday until the end of November, volunteers are helping hundreds of salmon cross a waterfall on Shawnigan Creek by carrying each fish by hand one at a time.

By the end of the season, thousands will be moved upstream with the help of dozens of volunteers and some ingenious equipment.

As the coho salmon make their way up Shawnigan Creek, they encounter a large waterfall that most are unable to climb.

A team of volunteers guides them up a small fish ladder and into holding tanks.

The salmon are then loaded into a hopper full of water which a second team of volunteers, stationed on the road, pulls up a steep and rocky hillside with the help of a pickup truck and a rail track system they've constructed.

Transporting the salmon has become much quicker than it was in the late 70s thanks to equipment like this rail track that helps carry them up the hillside.

Once the hopper reaches the road a dozen metres up, the volunteers unload the fish, one by one, and place them into tanks filled with water in the back of waiting pickup trucks.

Ted Brookman, president of the Mill Bay Conservation Society, says the operation has been ongoing since it started in 1978.

"There was no coho here [before the 70s]. I remember I was here the first time we cracked 200 fish for a season," says Brookman. "If we don't get 200 fish we don't even bother moving them now."

These days, the volunteers hope to move 3,000 salmon by the end of the season.

Approximately 3,000 salmon will be driven a short distance upstream to be dropped back into the river from this bridge. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

As the fish are placed in the trucks, each one is quickly assessed to determine its sex. If they're female, volunteers check the ripeness of their eggs — information that is then recorded in a ledger.

The trucks full of salmon are driven 10 minutes up the road to a small bridge west of the Trans Canada Highway where volunteers simply drop them under the railing into the water, one at a time.

Brookman says the labour is a nice change from his usual fisheries work that tends to focus on the negative impacts of human intervention.

"This is a fun project. This is something I can do with my hands. I can be there and I'm making a difference here."

Listen to the full story:

One of BC's most unique and labour-intensive salmon runs in Mill Bay involves moving thousands of fish upstream by hand, one by one. 7:49

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Island and Eva Uguen-Csenge