While it’s still early, the numbers of returning chinook salmon in the Sooke River seem to be slightly above average.
“On Oct. 9, we had swimmers in the water and they saw about 750 fish. The average for that location would be about 500,” said Wilf Luedke, the chief biologist for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Total numbers of chinook, however, continue to be in decline, according to DFO reports.
“It’s very complicated when you start talking about salmon,” Luedke said.
“The problems with chinook are more severe with stream chinook. The Sooke River fish are ocean type. They go out to sea, so their survival numbers are better.”
He said the Sooke salmon spend much of their time on the continental shelf and manage to avoid the problems encountered by other salmon types, like sockeye. Those fish venture further into the ocean and have been affected by a mass of unusually warm Pacific Ocean waters, caused by climate change and dubbed “the blob.”
Federal fisheries experts point to climate change as the main culprit in the decline of the fish stocks.
“There is no question that climate change is having a significant impact on our salmon,” said Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson at a recent news conference in Vancouver.
But while Luedke acknowledged climate change plays a role in fish stock declines, he said that “all kinds of things are going on.”
He cited rainfall levels, salmon stream degradation, predation by pinnipeds (seals) as only a few of the factors that affect fish stocks.
“They (salmon) are really a bellwether for what’s happening with our streams and our climate,” he said.
It’s a situation that has Bill Pedneault, the manager of the Jack Brooks Hatchery in Sooke, concerned.
He’s been monitoring the DFO counts and said that on a local level it bears out what is happening to the fishery in general.
He emphasized the work of the more than 20 volunteers at the Brooks Hatchery is more important than ever, a position with which Luedke agrees.
“The hatcheries play a vital role, certainly. But there are problems with the rate of return we’re seeing in Sooke. A lot of the returning fish originate from the Nitnat Hatchery. We don’t know what the problem is with the wild stocks. That’s something we need to study,” he said.
“The Sooke River has a problem and we need to work on resolving it.”
More bad news with the coho salmon returns. They’re lower than normal and Luedke can’t say why that is the case until further study takes place.
And chum salmon are worse yet, with returns Luedke described as dismal.
Luedke said that preliminary fish counts could be an indicator that some fishing closures may still be required.
The impacts of those closures were in evidence in 2019 as fishing restrictions caused severe hardship to charter fishing operations in the Sooke region.
Pedneault is unhappy with that possibility.
“There are so many variables at play. Is any one thing responsible? How do you measure that?” asked Pedneault.
“Hatcheries are a part of the answer but we have to work on stock assessment, stream enhancement … a lot of other things,” said Pedneault.
“The good news is that people are getting the message that something needs to be done.”
But despite the federal government announcement that $2.7 million has been approved for the B.C. Salmon Restoration Fund, Pedneault said the Brooks hatchery operates on a volunteer basis.
“There isn’t a dime of federal money been used in the construction or operation of the facility,” he said.
And despite funding challenges and indications that salmon stocks have continued to decline, Pedneault and the volunteers at the Brooks Hatchery continue their efforts.
“When I started as a fisherman in 1965, the fellow who was showing me the ropes told me that the fish back then were half the size that they’d been when he started out. Thirty years later, when I was retiring, the fish were half the size they’d been in ‘65,” recalled Pedneault.
“We have to keep working. It makes a difference.”