People gathered around a tank in the aquarium

Campbell River’s ‘catch and release’ Aquarium

There are only seven ‘catch and release’ aquariums in British Columbia, and one of them is in Campbell River. The Discovery Passage Aquarium is also in the first building dedicated to this purpose in British Columbia. 

“This job is very interesting and engaging, but it’s all a means to an end.  We want to work hard to change our relationship with nature, because in its current state it is unsustainable,” explained Ricky Belanger, Manager of the Discovery Passage Aquarium.

Image credit: Ricky Belanger, Manager of the Discovery Passage Aquarium – submitted photo

“It’s hard to get people interested in changing their ways if they don’t know why they’re doing it. So taking these animals out of their natural setting and doing our best to recreate their natural habitats in a captive setting, we can engage with them and learn about them while the animals are still in a comfortable setting. We’re working towards healthier oceans. One of our goals is to work towards a world where aquariums aren’t actually necessary.” 

This is the aquarium’s 10th operating season. 

“I’ve been running the place for the last four and a half years. It’s been my duty to collect animals, release animals, hire the staff, and all of that stuff since that I started in 2018,”  said Belanger.

British Columbia’s first catch and release aquarium opened in Ucluelet, during 2004. 

It occupied the same small building that now sits at the foot of the Discovery Pier. Mark Wunsch purchased all of the assets of the old Ucluelet Aquarium for about $10,000 and shipped them up to Campbell River. He founded the Discovery Passage Sea Life Society. 

“This year (the season) is going to be between five and six months,  depending on how the Fall progresses. We’re expecting much more interest from the public because COVID is seemingly on its way out,” said Belanger.

“We have anywhere between 80 to a hundred species, among the ones that visitors see at first glance upon entering the aquarium.”

A Giant Pacific Octopuses cups – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium
Blackeye Hermit Crab – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium
Squat Lobster – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium

The aquarium holds:

  • A Giant Pacific Octopus named ‘Raisen’
  • 15 Coho and 15 Chinook Salmon, which the Quinsam River Hatchery supplies every year
  • A myriad of crab species, perch, rockfish, sea urchins and between 8 and 12 different species of sea stars. 

Belanger said the number of species starts climbing higher and higher if it includes the ‘little things that grow on the rocks’ —  such as cup corals, bryzoans, tunicates, etc.

“Every once in a while we will bring in a challenging species and see how it handles captivity.  If we do start to see the early signs of stress, or for whatever reason we believe that it’s not a good fit, then those animals get released prematurely,” he explained.

“An example of that was a Basket Star, which is one of my favourite animals.  It’s a sea star that has five arms, but the arms actually split in two. So it’s like this dendritic net of arms that they splay into the sea water and capture plankton to feed on. They’re one of the most beautiful animals that we have in our area, but they are sensitive to warmer temperatures.  Last year we had it for about a month and then we started to witness the early signs of stress. Then one of our volunteers brought it back out to the reef  it was collected from.”

Little things that grow on rocks – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium
Orange Cup Coral – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium
Another view of the tanks – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium

The aquarium puts a strong emphasis on animal health and animal husbandry. 

“People go to aquarium to see healthy animals. Nobody wants to go to an aquarium and see unhealthy animals.” 

Belanger suspects that many animals lacking a central nervous system do not realize they are no longer in the ocean. There has been no noticeable change in their behaviour. 

“Fish are quite smart and within a week’s time, they will learn that food comes in certain forms and it usually comes from the top of the tank, that sort of thing. We assume that they are just as quickly able to reintegrate into the natural world as they were, when they were  taken out of it.” 

“Every salmon hatchery on the island releases animals that were born and raised in a captive setting and the success and the productivity of hatcheries speak for themselves. Animals removed from the ocean for about six months at a time and released  probably have far less to learn than a juvenile salmon being released into a river system for the first time.”  

Catching a marine animal – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium
Diver showing his bag – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium
Another view of the display area – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium

A mix of staff and volunteers work at the aquarium. Virtually everyone wearing a green vest between 10:00 AM and 4:30 PM is paid staff, but they have extended their hours with the assistance of volunteers.

“When people think of the Discovery Passage Aquarium, they think of the large  shack essentially at the base of the Discovery Pier, but that isn’t the  fullest extent of our organization. Right now we are sitting in what we call the Discovery Passage Explorer Lab, where we host summer camps, school programs, community groups. Sometimes we just open it up for a ‘by donation’ nature house style event,” said Belanger.

The Explorer Lab is just across the parking lot and they intend to focus a lot of attention on it after the aquarium closes down for the winter.

“We do currently have a second permanent full-time staff member and we are currently searching for funding to keep this person employed indefinitely. My role is going to stay as mostly an administrator/ manager/ curator for the aquarium. Shauna, our new hire, is going to be taking up a lot more community events, citizen science, educational programming and the Explorer lab,” he added. 

“One of the other things that we’d like to do is use the aquarium as a focal point of conservation. We have the facilities to do a little lab work here and there. We have been surveying sea stars around Campbell River to assess their populations and their health for a couple years. We’d like to do more of that in the future.”


Staff member meeting a elementary students at the door – Photo courtesy Discovery Passage Aquarium

One of their longer term goals is to find a more permanent home for the aquarium.

“We have entered into discussions with potential funders and government bodies about the possibility of expanding the size of our aquarium to something not necessarily as big, but on a comparable scale to what they have in Ucluelet.” 

If that happens, they may pass the current building on to another town that would like to have its own ‘catch and release’ aquarium.

Top photo credit: Inside the Discovery Passage Aquarium – submitted photo

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: