The number of chum salmon returning to spawn in Maple Ridge has gone from hundreds of thousands to merely hundreds this year.
“For 500 fish to return this year, when we expected 60,000, is very poor,” said Sophie Sparrow, of the Alouette River Management Society.
To put the return in context, the South Alouette River had 150,000 chum a decade ago.
In 2012, 120,000 chum returned to spawn there.
“You couldn’t see the riverbed. All you could see were dorsal fins,” said Sparrow. “Now you really need to use your keen eye to spot the fish.”
The hatchery system was supposed to provide eggs for others, so they could rebuild the chum salmon runs on other rivers in the Lower Mainland.
“Now we’re not even getting what we need for Allco Hatchery,” she said. “We’re missing a huge amount of chum.”
She said ARMS reported the low returns to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the federal agency reports seeing similar numbers across the Lower Mainland this year.
Sparrow said when chum are not returning, alarm bells should be ringing about the danger to all salmon. Other species of salmon are more easily stressed, and also more particular about their spawning grounds.
“Chum are a very resilient species. They are easy-going, and will spawn anywhere.”
Pink salmon numbers are also well down.
While ARMS used to count 7,000, and was expecting 1,500 to 2,500 this year, only 60 were counted.
The hatchery has been allocated to take 150,000 pink eggs, but could only take 42,000.
A pair of chinook salmon returned this year, however, and ARMS was able to spawn them.
The society only saw seven chinook, but in trying to rebuild the run, that was seen as a positive.
“That was really exciting for us,” said Sparrow. “We are slowly re-introducing chinook to the Alouette, and it is working.”
She said chinook and sockeye salmon species need faster water in order to spawn. ARMS staff truck them past the Alouette dam.
Sparrow said there appears to be no single reason for the lower returns. The “blob” of warm water in the Pacific puts stress on aquatic life, and there has been over-fishing for years, as well as other factors.
“The is no one answer, to say, ‘This is what’s causing it.’”
However, she said there is no reason to expect such a low return of chum again with next year’s run.