Fish dying without spawning

Pink and orange are normal colors for ripe eggs inside female salmon.

What’s troubling is that two of the chum appeared to have completely abnormal eggs – Doug Stanger, streamkeeper.

 

Pink and orange are normal colors for ripe eggs inside female salmon.

Black isn’t.

But, that’s what Doug Stanger and ARMS volunteers Cliff Olson, and Joe Jurcich found this fall as they tallied spawners in Millionaire and Coho creeks, which empty into the Alouette River.

“Something’s definitely wrong,” says Olson. “What really concerns me is the eggs we found. Most of the fish hadn’t spawned (milt and eggs inside). One female’s were black. Normally, there’d be just a few eggs left in them after a week, and they’d be a light pink or orangy color, not black. I’ve never seen this before.”

In another coho, Olson said the eggs were absolutely white.

“You see white eggs sometimes in the water with a distinct black dot on them, almost like it was done with a paintbrush. You can see the alevin in them, which means they’ve been fertilized, but these were just white with a black dot. You shouldn’t see the eyed egg until it was fertilized. It just can’t happen – fertilized, eyed eggs inside a female that hasn’t spawned. That doesn’t make sense. I’m not a scientist, I can’t explain it. I’ve just opened a lot of fish over time.”

Olson wants an expert opinion for the apparent abnormalities, but struggled for who to call in the DFO – the authority for wild salmon. It’s a big problem with staff cuts, habitat offices closed, and DFO’s policy of not monitoring local streams or escapements. There’s no excuse for DFO not to be on spawning streams this fall and sending reports of abnormalities to government laboratories or documenting the scarcity of spawners.

“To put this in perspective,” says Stanger, last year we’d be finding 25-35 live chum weekly. Our largest weekly chum count to date is eight, but most counts have been zero to two, and the dead fish, mostly unspawned, seem to deteriorate very quickly – in the space of a week. I’ve never seen that before.”

Olson was also shocked by the weak returns.

“The numbers this year are horrendous. I’ve never seen such low returns on both chum and coho.”

Weak returns, abnormal eggs. Were they only found on the north side of the Fraser River?

No, says Doug Gosling, a volunteer stream keeper with the Abbotsford Ravine Park Salmon Enhancement Society. Gosling worries about unusually low fish counts on the river’s south side, too.

“I’m concerned about the same things,” says Gosling.  “When a volunteer opened a female, she had the red eggs in her, ready to come out, but they all had black dots in them. The fish hadn’t spawned. It’s a mystery. I don’t understand it.

It’s also disturbing.

“When we find a female that hasn’t spawned it breaks your heart,” says Gosling. He’s also asked DFO for insight unsuccessfully. Field officers avoid talking for fear of discipline. They should be answering the questions of stream keepers. They man the front line now in defense of a resource the public wants sustained.

“They didn’t know anything,” says Gosling. “It’s so unfortunate DFO doesn’t have proper funding [to monitor streams, monitor and study trends.] They’re so skinny on staffing and budgeting.”

Like Olson and Stanger, Gosling wonders why fish died without spawning. All  want an explanation for low returns, fish that break down and deteriorate as if they had Ebola, and salmon that lack the stamina to get any distance up streams.

Are the immune systems of chum passing fish farms weakened along with sockeye?

DFO is not protecting chum or coho and their streams.

They’re monitored by their real champions: volunteer streamkeepers.

 

 

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.