A creek

No Chum in Basil Creek yet, but the outlook for salmon may be improving

It is November 26 and there are still no Chum Salmon in Basil Creek. Normally they would have returned a month ago, but there was a prolonged drought this year. While the water level has risen, there are still no fish.

“It’s getting to be late for Chum, but we’re seeing other populations come in late. We might see Chum return into the next few weeks, it’s very possible. This year is definitely characterized by a lot of weird conditions,” said Matthew Clarke, DFO’s Head for stock assessment in North Vancouver Island, from Black Creek to Cape Caution (which is actually on the Mainland). His area also includes Cortes and Quadra Islands.    

Image credits: (above) a trickle of water coming through the rocks at the mouth of Basil Creek on Oct 9 (top of page) the creek on Nov 26 – Photos by Roy L Hales

In this morning’s story Clarke gives an overview of the salmon returns throughout his area, as well three reasons why the late return on Basil Creek might not be as disastrous as it sounds. 

Related: Cortes Streamkeepers report “a dozen fish” in Basil Creek and 8-10 in James Creek, ‘0’ in so far Whaletown and Hansen Creeks;

Cortes Currents:  We know that some of the salmon runs were delayed.  We know that some of the creeks were very low. Basil Creek, where I am, was practically dry. There was a slight trickle, but now it’s better.  What’s happening with our salmon runs? Are the Chum going to return? 

Matthew Clarke: “Chum is an interesting one. They tend to come in late, when nobody else is really around usually. When the water levels are elevated, so they can be hard to count. Are we interested specifically in Chum?”

Adapted from Google maps by Roy L Hales

Cortes Currents: I am actually interested in all the salmon runs within our area, but I have a special interest in Cortes and Quadra Islands. 

 Matthew Clarke: “ I guess maybe I’ll go through by species then, just quickly.” 

“So for Pinks, broadly, we saw a pretty good resurgence this year compared to recent years.  We’ve seen really low ocean productivity for quite a few years and now we’re actually seeing things bump back up. One example being Campbell/Quinsam, that one I think we hit 700,000ish returns this year. So that was a real good news story.” 

(Clarke’s next anecdote is from the Port Hardy region.)

Matthew Clarke: “We have a fence project on the Keogh River, and we are in the neighborhood of around 80,000 Pinks for that system. That’s coming off of a generational average of only 8,000 fish.” 

“So Pinks is definitely a good story, and we’re not seeing it limited just to the Island – which we have seen in the past few years. We’re also seeing it move over to the Mainland side.  In recent years we’ve seen almost no Pinks in the Broughton Archipelago, now we’re actually seeing Pinks showing up there in decent numbers, so that’s excellent.”  

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Cortes Currents: “Didn’t the Pinks come in before we really started feeling the drought?” 

Matthew Clarke: “In a lot of systems they did, in the Quinsam for sure they did. Others where we don’t have a fence, they seemed to have held in front of the river for a very long time.”

“So example here being the Keogh: those fish stayed out until the end of October, which is very long. Most of those fish are typically migrating in at the end of September, usually with that first rain.  A lot of  those populations were delayed  by weeks  and potentially even up to a month in some cases.”

“We did see a bit of pre-spawn mortality on some of the systems but, I think, the abundance in general for Pinks was enough to offset most of that. There is a question there about a month of delayed time in terms of when you’re supposed to drop your eggs? What does that mean for development timing? These are cold blooded animals. Development occurs over time and if they miss a month and those fish are emerging later. It’s going to impact how things are timed for sure.”

Two pictures of Basil Creek on Nov 26: (above) the culvert on Whaletown Road, (top of page) the mouth of the creek – Photos by Roy L Hales

Cortes Currents: “Going back to Basil Creek, does this mean we could lose all of this year’s run?”   

 Matthew Clarke: “Chum are interesting because they return as 3, 4, and 5 year olds. We don’t typically see any younger fish, or older than 5 usually. The dominant age can shift between years. That brings in a lot of flexibility. So if we lose one year, there’s usually fish coming back from the other age classes that can offset that.” 

“We also see in Chum, the genetic structure of the populations is not quite as tight, which suggests that we’re seeing a little bit more straying in those populations.” ( i.e.-if they can’t get up Basil Creek, the Chum may go somewhere else.)

Chum Salmon Spawn – by Bob Turner

Matthew Clarke: “I don’t think that we’re seeing a loss. I think we’re seeing an event that happened. It was more severe than anything we’ve seen, but the plasticity in those populations for multiple year classes or even a bit of strain, is probably going to offset the impacts. It might take a little bit because there is one dominant age class, but if there’s still fish coming back from the neighbouring age classes in subsequent years, those populations can rebuild pretty quickly from low abundance.”  

“We do see Chum boom and bust. We see Pinks, boom and bust.  As long as incubation conditions are good, so when the eggs are in the gravel they survive well; As long as when they’re in the ocean marine survival conditions are reasonable: they can bounce back from very low abundance pretty effectively.” 

“So I don’t think it’s going to be the demise, I think it’s an event that happened. It’s going to have an impact for sure, but I think over the longer term you’ll see those populations come back — provided conditions are suitable in the fresh water and in the ocean for their incubation and their feeding schedules.” 

“They could still be late. On that note, Amor de Cosmos Creek in the Campbell River area, just saw 130,000 Pinks come in on the 17th.  Fresh, healthy looking Pinks, now a month and a half past when we would typically expect to see them.” 

“What I would say is it’s getting to be late for Chum, but we’re seeing other populations come in late, so we might see Chum return into the next few weeks, it’s very possible. This year is definitely characterized by a lot of weird conditions.” 

“While it’s getting late, there’s still potential that they’re going to come and, if not, there are ways that these fish naturally rebound. That flexible age class structure really does help.” 

“Pinks is the best news story.” 

“The abundances on Chum have been pretty poor for the past five years, but we’re starting to see those rebuild a bit.”

“The Nimpkish  is an example where two years ago we didn’t see any Chum.  The only Chum we saw were in the mouths of seals, they need to eat too. But this year we flew over and counted just under 3,000, maybe 2,500. So that’s pretty exciting.” 

Near the entrance of Bute Inet – Photo by David Stanley via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

(His next anecdote comes from Bute Inlet.)

 Matthew Clarke: “Orford was another example. We were anticipating in the 1,000 to 2,000 range, and we ended up getting 10,000 back to that system.  It’s a bit more of a mixed bag with Chum, but I think overall we are seeing ocean conditions for them improve and they’re able to take advantage of it, it seems, pretty quickly.”

“If you have a population of only a few individuals, it’s going to take a little bit more time to see that come up because they have a longer way to build from, but I think we are starting to see things improve a little bit.” 

“Chinook: Things there are still in progress. The Quinsam/Campbell is just finishing up in terms of our work there.  We don’t have an estimate on that one, but  it looks to be in about the average return, which is a good thing.”

“Phillips Arm is a little bit below average, but I think the main contribution from the hatchery is in the four year olds and I believe that one is coming out this year. We are seeing relatively decent returns given the hatchery has wound down its operations, and we’re starting to see those returns decrease.”

“We did see some pre spawn mortality in Chinook this year, but how impactful that will be remains to be seen. They’re special because they have those multiple year classes as well. They’ll come back as 3, 4, 5 and 6s. So a bit more of an ability to rebound if things go their way.”

“Coho typically are returning into late October, early November anyway.  I don’t think we’ll see much of an impact from the drought on Coho relative to say Pinks or Chinook. I don’t even think they really show up on the beaches until mid to late September,  down your way. They’re not really entering the streams until mid to late October, or whenever that first big rain comes.”

Related: Articles about Climate Change threatening the survival of Wild Salmon

“The drought was a big impact. I think we’re going to see some impacts of that into the future, but exactly what they’re going to be is unknown.” 

“I think things are better this year in terms of ocean conditions.” 

“I think the Blob really drove a lot of poor productivity and we saw those conditions persisting for a long time. We saw lower numbers of the high quality copepods that the salmon are relying on. We’re seeing those communities start to come back. We’re seeing better feed concentrations. We’re seeing the indicators of marine survival improving.” 

“In the recent past, the stoplight chart is mostly red and that’s bad. The ocean year for 2020, I believe, was the best in probably 12 years. We’re starting to see things turn around.”

“There’s a few reasons for that.  We’re on the third year of La Niña, there’s a Pacific Decadal Oscillation that will impact things.” 

“We typically see marine conditions improve and then cycle down to poor and then improve and then cycle end to poor.” 

“I think we’re starting to go into maybe the beginning of a positive phase. I’m not an oceanographer or any of that, but we are starting to see the indicators come back.”

“One example is Pink Marine Survival is in the 4% to 5% range. That’s unbelievable marine survival for a fish that enters the ocean at about 30 millimetres. We’re not close to that with Chinook. And our Coho population generally, even though they go out in the ocean quite a bit bigger, they’re not nearing that level of marine survival either.  Things are improving. Pinks are a good indicator of that. Right now they’re on the uptick.” 

Cortes Currents:  Is there anything that we can do?   

Matthew Clarke:  “ This might be one of those times to start looking towards opportunities for climate resiliency. If these things are going to become more common, we need to look at ways where we can maybe bank up some stuff.”

“Some watersheds have water storage. Campbell/Quinsam is a good example of where they’re able to hold up some water through the summer and then release it in the fall  or vice versa. We might need to start looking at some of those types of opportunities because really  if there’s no water and we can’t make water,  there’s not much we can do to get the fish into the rivers.” 

Cortes Currents reached out to Cortes Streamkeepers, but they were not available in time for this story.

Top image credit: Mouth of Basil Creek at high tide on Nov 26, 202 – Photo by Roy L Hales

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