Last week’s heavy rains invited hundreds of coho salmon up the Colquitz River for the annual spawning run.
But the excitement longtime Colquitz fish fence volunteer Dorothy Chambers felt on Friday morning turned to a heavy heart when she learned of poachers breaking into the fish fence to steal spawning coho on Friday afternoon.
“When community members showed up for the 5 p.m. fish count they witnessed three people standing on the fence,” Chambers said. “They had a gaffing hook and quickly ran off.”
Evidence of fish guts suggested at least three coho had been killed on the deck. Another three salmon were found injured inside the fence with gaffing hook wounds. They were counted and released but with doubts about their health.
Fishing in the Colquitz River has been illegal for decades and poaching from the fish fence is a federal offence. Chambers reported the incident to the Saanich Police and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The DFO told Chambers it will post signs along the Colquitz warning the public not to remove any fish.
“They broke the locks off, opened the trap and killed on site, that’s three to five thousand eggs per female, [hundreds] of potential salmon gone,” Chambers said. “I’m saddened to hear this is not the first time, and that this has happened a few times in previous years, but I was unaware.”
For 15 years the Colquitz River fish fence behind Tillicum shopping centre has acted as a vital monitor for the coho salmon population. Chambers now leads the group of volunteers who move the fish through the trap, which means multiple counts per day during spawning season.
Counters lift the wooden top and use a four-foot-wide fish net to pull out the fish and quickly release them back into the Colquitz.
Some of the females – who turn red when they spawn – are nearly all red by the time the reach the fence.
As of Monday, 337 coho had come through the fence this year. Numbers are usually at least 150 and as high as 1,500 (a peak number from 2013).
More than 200 have come through since Friday morning, as the heavy rains, high water mark and turbidity are the signs that tell spawning salmon it’s time to go make their way up to Mann Avenue, Copley Park and Swan Creek.
“They’ve only been going to Swan Creek for a couple of years and a lot of praise should go to the Friends of Swan Creek for their work restoring the habitat,” Chambers said.
A partnership of several agencies led to have the Colquitz remuneration fence re-installed in 2001 to replace one that Saanich ran in the 1970s, which had fallen into disrepair.
Chris Bos and Barrie Goodwin deserve much of the credit for organizing and running the fish fence since 2001, but they have now stepped back.
The fence has also been a salmon showcase for dozens of local preschool and elementary classes.
“In rains like this, the Colquitz water level can sometimes reach above the fence,” Chambers said. “Then the salmon can swim overtop with being counted.”
Other fish that come through the fence are cutthroat trout and jacks.
The lock to the fish fence was quickly repaired on Friday night.