Sometimes in B.C., there’s more water than even the fish can handle.
That was certainly the case last fall, as torrential rainstorms wreaked havoc across the province, said Bill Vigars, a volunteer with the Little Campbell River hatchery in South Surrey.
In November 2021, as parts of B.C. were devastated by historic flooding from an atmospheric river, the facility at 1284 184 St. was not spared, with rising water damaging vital equipment and resulting in the loss of more than 30,000 coho salmon eggs, Vigars noted.
Vigars, who is relatively new to his role at the hatchery, is among a handful of volunteers putting in hours at the facility on a sunny Friday morning in late spring.
Bill Ridge, Andrew Pothier and Roy Thompson are also on hand to provide a short, but informative tour of the hatchery, located beside the Little Campbell where it flows through a 29-acre property owned and operated by the Semiahmoo Fish and Game Club.
Ridge offers insight into the mechanical workings that keep clean, aerated water flowing through the facility where salmon and steelhead trout are hatched and raised to smolt stage before being released to make their short journey to the sea.
Thompson’s area of expertise is operation of the fish fence on the river itself, where spawning salmon and steelhead are captured and counted each October and November and, in the case of returning hatchery fish, have their eggs harvested.
Each year, on average, 44,000 chinook, 35,000 coho and 10,000 steelhead are raised at the facility.
Pothier, meanwhile, is busy scrubbing the insides of large green tanks containing – at the moment – 7,500 salmon fry. Next, he will feed the young fish. In mid-September, they’ll be moved to the outdoor coho pond where they’ll remain until they’re released in April.
From there, if all goes to plan, they’ll be killed and eaten.
“We’re raising sacrificial fish,” quipped Ridge.
It’s hoped these salmon will be preyed upon by seals, otters and eagles, giving genetically superior wild salmon a better chance at survival.
Because they’re raised in a protected environment, “hatchery fish are dumb, they’re not as savvy,” said Thompson.
“They tend to be picked off, and that’s good. For every hatchery fish that gets eaten, there’s a wild one that doesn’t.”
Hatching a plan
Aside from offering an explanation of how the facility operates, the focus of the tour is to illustrate why the SFGC is embarking upon an ambitious campaign to build a brand new hatchery on the property.
There are actually three reasons a new building is needed, explained Ridge.
First, and most dramatic, is related to last November’s flooding, brought on by sustained and heavy rainfall – weather that is expected to become more common as a result of climate change.
The current hatchery building sits at river level, not far from the stream’s bank. During the height of last autumn’s flooding – which saw fish swimming on the property’s driveway – vital equipment inside the hatchery was damaged or destroyed by the rising water and 30,000 of 38,000 coho eggs in the hatchery’s “nursery” died in their trays after going too long without fresh water.
The new facility will be built on high ground, well above the level reached by the rising river last year.
Also cause for concern, said Ridge, is Metro Vancouver’s decision last February to greenlight zoning for light industrial development in South Campbell Heights, including the potential removal of trees to make way for large buildings and parking lots on properties adjacent to the Little Campbell.
Trees and other vegetation help the ground absorb rainfall and slowly release it into the river, he noted. Pavement and other impervious surfaces will instead act as funnels, allowing large volumes of water to flow into the river too quickly.
It was not only water volume that created problems for the hatchery last November, but velocity, as well. It pushed tons of gravel along the riverbed, jamming up, and in some places bending, the metal gates of the fish fence, rendering them inoperable. This summer, there will be a window of time where the club will be allowed to enter the stream and remove much of the gravel. For now, they have to be patient as wild salmon fry linger in the safety of shaded pools along the riverbank near the fish fence.
Out with the old
The second goal is to replace aging and outdated technology, which includes decades-old pumps and filtration systems that need constant monitoring and maintenance – sometimes in the middle of the night. What that new technology will look like, Ridge isn’t yet certain, but he’s confident it will be an improvement.
Pushing hard for a new hatchery facility is the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Like Ridge, the federal agency wants to see the facility’s systems updated and automated.
Their main concern – and the third reason for the project – is ensuring the health of salmon hatched and released into the river.
The hatchery draws its water from an aquifer, where temperatures remain consistently cool year-round. It is then aerated through a gravity-fed system to filter out harmful manganese before it flows to the hatchery, where it winds its way through a series of ponds and tanks.
The DFO’s concern is that the same water that flows through steelhead-rearing channels is then directed into the coho pond.
“DFO wants individual flow (of fresh water) to each pond to avoid (the spread of) disease,” Ridge explained.
Though it’s still early days, estimates put the cost of construction of the new hatchery at $2.5-$4 million.
Because much of the impetus for the new construction is coming from DFO, Ridge expects they will make a contribution toward it, as will the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Other fundraising will be done as well, he noted.
In the meantime, the public is invited to attend an open house on Saturday, June 25. The event, celebrating the SFGC’s 65th anniversary, will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include archery in the (covered) outdoor archery range, hatchery tours, indoor range demonstrations and nature trail walks.