Peter McCully and his volunteer team are passionate about their work with the Goldstream Hatchery.
WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE FIRST SET OF GATES to the Goldstream Howard English Salmon Hatchery, weekly volunteer Steve Atamanchuk greets me with a wave and sets upon me with a dry sense of humour that pushes away the cobwebs of the morning. “Yup, I’m a volunteer here. Last year they offered me a 20 percent raise. I told them not to give me so much.”
Atamanchuk is part of the “Tuesday Crew,” comprised of six retirees from the ranks of over 20,000 volunteers that work province-wide six days a week to restore habitat and run salmon hatchery programs. Atamanchuk and his cohorts are coordinated by Peter McCully, Technical Advisor, part-time contractor and volunteer with the Goldstream Salmonoid Enhancement Association, located at the Goldstream Hatchery, in the Greater Victoria Water District lands. “Teachers, engineers, posties, geologists, journeymen, ex-military; the membership is eclectic at best,” says McCully. The only thing they’re missing, he rues, is more young people. Atamanchuk, his voice full of respect, whispers McCully’s own background to me. McCully served with the Royal Canadian Navy for 25 years before retiring. He went back to school, finished his biology degree, and returned to the river he first visited during spawning season in 1949 with his father, who took him to see the magic of the run.
This summer, McCully and his cluster of volunteers learned that the Goldstream’s education program, which allows school children to learn about salmon lifecycles and help incubate salmon eggs, was due to be cut. Countless volunteers and non-profits rose up to protect the outreach programs, which are part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) education, stewardship and salmon enhancement programs. If the cuts had gone through (the activists won, this year), they would have saved the Federal government a mere $400,000. The costs, argue many, would have been immeasurable.
Peter McCully (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
McCully’s history as a uniformed serviceman seems incongruent with his gentle demeanor and incredible attachment to the natural world. While driving through the various locked gates that lead to the hatchery, he tells me of a conversation he had earlier that morning with a giant black beetle. To his amusement, a couple of park rangers hiking the Trans Canada Trail caught him bending over the road, asking the beetle how its day was going. “I believe everything can communicate on some plane,” he laughs, and gets out to open another gate in the watershed lands. “This keeps me young!”
The Goldstream River cuts through the mostly pristine wilderness of the Greater Victoria Watershed Lands and Goldstream Provincial Park before emptying into Finlayson Arm, south of Saanich Inlet. Few invasive species grace its banks (though some yellow perch and bullfrogs have infiltrated), making it an ideal spawning habitat for five species of salmon, including prolific Chum and the many Coho. The hatchery program, BC’s largest, includes fish counting, a school education program, and the hatchery itself. Over 100 incubators currently operate in school classrooms around the region, nurturing salmon eggs into fry, which are released after 18 months into Goldstream River, Colquitz River and other salmon-bearing streams.
“It’s almost laughable, the cutbacks to DFO in recent years,” says McCully. “Without volunteers to do citizen science, we’d be in sad shape.” With the recent escape of Atlantic salmon into West Coast waters, and continued concerns about open-net fish farms, watershed contamination, and pipeline construction, volunteer work at the Goldstream Hatchery is as pertinent as it was in 1971, when Howard English, a local outdoorsman, began streamside incubation of salmon eggs after noticing declining salmon stocks. Funding was secured for the rearing of salmon, habitat enhancement, and public education in 1977 from the DFO.
Last September 19, the Tuesday Crew and volunteers from Stantec Engineering assembled a Japanese floating weir on the Goldstream River, just east of the hatchery. The weir is a removable fish fence that gets installed every September in advance of the fall salmon spawn. Originally, salmon were supposed to be corralled by the weir and driven naturally into a counting fence at the river’s edge. But, as McCully tells me, “Coho are tricky!” They didn’t use the fence. So now, volunteers in hip waders lift the floats and dip the salmon out along the wide expanse of the fence. They are sorted by species, gender and by whether they are hatchery or wild born. Hatchery fish have their adipose fins removed. Some fish are then selected for brood stock, and taken to the hatchery to collect their eggs and milk. The rest are returned to the river, where they travel back to the exact place they were born, spawning before they die. “It’s a magical part of the food chain,” says McCully, gleefully, watching his volunteers nudge sections of the floating weir into place.
The Tuesday crew seem just as pleased to shoulder their work with enthusiasm. At the hatchery, the cookies (and the Lamb’s mickey) I spotted at 8:00 a.m. disappear from the lunchroom within the hour. An endless pot of coffee sits warm on its element, and despite the rain, the goofiness of the crew is contagious.
The fall spawn won’t mark the end of the volunteers’ work. In January, McCully tells me, comes the fun part: the Carcass Toss and the Mark Recovery project. “It’s miserable work,” he says, grinning. To complete the Mark Recovery, volunteers walk the river, noting any Coho marked by a hole punched in their gill cover. Data provides a sense of how many hatchery and wild fish are returning. During the Carcass Toss, volunteers of all ages deposit dead fish into nearby waters, like Douglas Creek, in Mount Douglas Park. “Our rivers are low in nutrients on their own,” explains McCully. “Without these fish coming in, it would be a lot poorer environment. Wonderful fish!”
“He’s an incredible teacher,” confirms Dorothy Chambers, who volunteers on the Colquitz River salmon count and whose own work on salmon enhancement on the Colquitz River Focus covered in October 2015. “He’s been my mentor for years.”
McCully doesn’t see the hatchery program ever becoming superfluous, in part due to increasing population numbers in urban area, and in part due to our insatiable appetite for seafood. “You can have wild salmon, but you won’t be able to enjoy a harvest without artificially enhancing them,” he says.
McCully seems resigned to open-net aquaculture techniques like those which resulted in an escape of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon this summer. “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t be a booster of aquaculture. But if you want to enjoy seafood, then you have to have it. I don’t think we should be commercially harvesting our wild salmon. That’s my personal opinion.” McCully argues that Pacific salmon are much more aggressive than Atlantic salmon species. They outcompete in streams and don’t interbreed with Pacific wild species, thus posing less of a risk than some believe. (Biologist Alexandra Morton, for instance, cites piscine reovirus and sea lice as just two of the long list of reasons Atlantic salmon don’t belong in open-net pens. In late September, after a large escape from a fish farm, the City of Victoria Council passed an emergency resolution calling for an end to open-net fish farms in BC.)
Thanks to pushback from local environmentalists and educators, McCully’s contract at the Goldstream Hatchery will continue for another year, and 35,000 BC school children will keep learning about salmon lifecycles through the incubation boxes provided to their classrooms.
“This is a resource centre for many things beyond fish,” stresses McCully, citing research on the migratory habits of Rufus Hummingbirds and DNA testing of local waters. But salmon, for McCully, are the most beautiful of all. “If you don’t imbue in the children a sense of stewardship and the importance of this marvellous creature, you’re dead in the water.”
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.