Discovery of chinook fry is watershed find

Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society (CLSES) members are excited: they’ve found chinook as well as coho fry this summer

  • Sep. 4, 2015 5:00 a.m.

Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society (CLSES) members are excited: they’ve found chinook as well as coho fry this summer in some of the small creeks that flow into Cowichan Lake.

According to Bob Crandall, president of the society, the group’s years of vigilance have paid off.

In June, he was working by himself at Ashburnham Creek in Honeymoon Bay, trying to rescue coho fry out of the lower pool below the South Shore Road bridge.

“There were plenty in the pool. I netted 1,900 of them and released them into [Cowichan] Lake. I went back to the pool and it crossed my mind that I was not looking closely enough at these fry.

“You know, you get pretty excited when you find fish that need to be rescued and you can rescue them. That’s rewarding. Sometimes you get really caught up in that. But I stopped suddenly because I saw something and realized: these aren’t all coho. I got down on my hands and knees to have a closer look and realized, wow, some of these are chinook. These are what we’d been looking for. So I froze a tiny one and shipped it off to the lab right away,” Crandall said.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) confirmed it was a chinook.

“Another member of our group found them in Robertson and then as a group we found them in Sutton as well,” he said.

Since then they have performed microsurgery on the chinook they’ve found and sent away samples for analysis.

“We have secured close to 200 samples. I have the last 42 DNA samples in my possession and I’m waiting to transfer them probably later this week to the DFO lab. About the third week of September we’ll get the results back from the DNA testing to see if they are spring chinook or fall chinook,” Crandall said.

“We’re very excited about that. Imagine watching for two and a half years and not finding anything and then, wow, you find it.”

It’s been a really dry year, with not as much flow of water to help the fish get around and that might have played a part in the discovery of chinook up at Honeymoon Bay.

“It could have been that they were trapped early, and that’s what made it possible for us to find them,” he said.

There has been a great deal of effort put into researching what’s in the Cowichan system this year, according to Crandall.

“We [the Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society] were working with Lake Cowichan First Nation and [biologist] Ted Burns for the first two years looking for chinook and then this year we had extra help arrive from One Cowichan, the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, Cowichan Tribes and DFO. They’ve been doing a lot of chinook research all up and down the Cowichan River this year and I was doing the tributaries up at the lake,” he said.

DFO has been doing some significant research in the Cowichan River this year and the chinook watch. It’s been interesting to see how many have made it up above Marie Canyon and the falls, he said.

“There are only two that have made it past the [Lake Cowichan] weir so far, he said. “The rest are in deep pools in the cool water. That’s how Ted Burns explained it to us. They come part way up and they hang out in the cool water until a little bit later when there is a bit less sun per day and the water temperature drops a couple of degrees. Then they get encouragement to move upriver to where they want to go to spawn. That’s their timing.”

The level in the river combined with the amount of heat in a long, dry summer has made it difficult for them, he added.

“At least a couple [of chinook] have been identified by the snorkel crews and scuba divers that were looking for them and I understand they also saw eight sockeye that were doing the same thing as the chinook were: laying down low in cool water in deep pools in the river,” Crandall said.

The salmonid enhancement society’s efforts reach far beyond fry rescue in creeks near Honeymoon Bay.

Crandall’s own work has taken him into both Lake Cowichan and Palsson schools where he has found an enthusiastic response from students for programs like planting trees and painting pictures of fish beside storm drains.

With these helpers and an active group of between 30-60 of its own volunteers, there are always plenty of helping hands to keep the society’s work going, he said.