Dorothy Chambers, lead steward with Colquitz River fish fence, cannot wait for the fall downpours, as salmon spawning season approaches.
“Right now, it [Colquitz River] is too shallow, and it is too clear,” says Chambers, as she speaks to a group of students from Spectrum Community School, who have gathered on the observation bridge of the Colquitz River fish counting fence near Tillicum Centre.
“So they want some good rains, and they want the turbidity of the water, the cloudiness of the water [to be higher], so they can be hidden, as they come upstream.”
They are the salmon, who left the Colquitz watershed for the northern Pacific when they were one year old. Three to five years later, they have gathered in Portage Inlet to await the final leg of their life journey: come home to the place where they were born to spawn, then die.
About one kilometre into this cradle-to-grave journey up the Colquitz River, they will run into the fence where Chambers and her audience stand. It will funnel them into a wooden box, where volunteers will then lift them out of the water to count and categorize them.
“Every day [during spawning season] we are down here,” said Chambers. “We net the fish out, and we want to know their gender, what is the species, are they coho, are they chum, are they something else? We are now looking for Atlantic salmon because of the big salmon farm escape that happened in the United States,” she said.
As volunteers assess, they also look for sea lice and injuries from predators, like otters and seals. Volunteers then send them on their way.
This counting helps scientists and conservationists assess the state of the fish population, as well as the ecosystem that sustains them, and continues a tradition that dates back to 2000. Chambers herself joined this effort in 2006 as part of a personal mission dating back decades to revive and restore the river through her involvement in groups like the Salmon in The City project.
Last year’s count was down , with 1,108 coho reaching the counting fence instead of the 1,500 expected. This year’s count takes place against the backdrop of rising concerns about the general health of the Pacific salmon population in the face of climate change and commercial fish farming practices that are accused of undermining Pacific salmon stocks.
Protesters recently occupied the constituency offices of Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, who is responsible for fish farms as minister of agriculture, in solidarity with a fish farm occupation in northern B.C.
Concerns about the potential effects of development in Saanich such as a proposed highway berm on the Colquitz River add a local dimension to this tableau.
None of these concerns openly intruded as Chambers described and discussed the complex procreation of coho salmon.
As Chambers wrapped up her impromptu presentation, and the students along with their teacher returned to class, it was not hard to notice that they appeared genuinely impressed by what they heard about the salmon, its plucky resilience and unbreakable determination to get home.
Chambers urged them to come back once the salmon start arriving and many promised that they would. Now the weather just has to co-operate.