The Nanaimo River Hatchery is one of British Columbia’s many productive local fish hatcheries. They have been steadily producing salmon on the Nanaimo River since 1976. I recently had the opportunity to observe their work and speak with manager Brian Banks.
The hatchery is located on the south side of the Nanaimo River at 2775 Rugby Road on land owned by the Harmac Pacific pulp mill. It is one of nineteen hatcheries in BC that are part of the Community Economic Development Program. It currently has funding for four full-time staff as well as two part-time employees for the fall egg-taking.
The Nanaimo River Stewardship Society
In 2002 the Nanaimo River Stewardship Society was formed and took on the management of the hatchery under contract from the Department of Fisheries. They are a non-profit society comprised of eight directors from the local community.
Each fall, staff capture brood stock using seine and gill nets. Trucks then transport the fish to the hatchery. Once at the hatchery, these fish are held in tanks to “ripen” until they are ready to be spawned. Eggs are then taken, fertilized, and placed in incubators until they hatch. Once they are ready to eat food, they are placed in large ponds to grow.
They are currently raising multiple runs of four species of salmon.
Each species and every specific run are reared and fed for different amounts of time. They are then released in various locations. While I was at the hatchery, Brian and his crew were loading up 100,000 coho smolts to transport for release in Nanaimo Lakes. They were dip-netting the fish and carefully placing them in water tanks on two pick-up trucks.
The public volunteers to help the staff clip the adipose fin of around 80,000 coho smolts each year. This marks them as hatchery fish and opens them up to sports fishermen to retain. The board and staff of Nanaimo River Hatchery are in favour of mass clippings of hatchery fish, but the practice is contingent on public participation as Department of Fisheries (DFO) does not fund it.
In the early 2000s, the Nanaimo Hatchery began a program to re-introduce pink salmon to the Nanaimo and Haslam rivers. Each river had supported large runs of pinks in the past. Stock from the Quinsam River were used to start a run that has seen returns of up to 60,000 (click to read the article).
The fish are released from a small net pen in Departure Bay. They return to Departure Bay and the mouth of the Millstone River before most move up the Nanaimo River. They have provided an easily accessible fishery to many individuals, including myself. When I moved to Nanaimo as a young man with no boat, I cherished the opportunity to fish for salmon on a beach within the city.
I also witnessed many young anglers catch their first salmon, as well as many seniors smiling and watching from the park benches on the seawall.
The hatchery operates programs in the fall and spring for up to 1,500 elementary school students, as well as providing eggs for students to raise in incubators. My father (a teacher) often raised a tank of salmon in his own classroom as a class project. The students would learn about the lifecycle of the salmon, and it provided a valuable education tool. At the end of the project, the students would release the salmon in the creek beside our house. Although I should also note that he did say that he would always hang his favourite fishing lure beside the fish tank … for educational purposes.
Nanaimo River Hatchery Spawning Days
Every year on the first Sunday of November, the hatchery hosts a community open house called Spawning Days. I have made it a point to go for the last few years. I bring my children and we always have a great time. Visitors can see spawning salmon, participate in egg-taking, release juvenile coho into the river, and view many interactive educational displays. The Nanaimo Fish and Game Club puts on a salmon BBQ, and I can personally recommend their delicious salmon burgers. This is an important fundraising day for the hatchery and is well-attended by the public.
The scenic trails around the hatchery remain open year-round. October and November are the best times for viewing spawning salmon, but they always provide an enjoyable nature walk.
The Nanaimo River Hatchery depends heavily on community support and fundraising. The Department of Fisheries has not increased its funding in twenty years, telling the hatchery to cut either salmon production or educational programs to make up the funding shortfalls due to increasing operating costs. For now, community support helps maintain production of the hatchery. The hatchery notes that they receive assistance from The Nanaimo Fish and Game Club, the Silva Bay Fishing Derby, The Harbour Chandler Pirates Day Sale, Kiwanis Bullhead Derby, Zuider Zee Bass Derby, and others. However, many of these derbies and events have been postponed for this year and donations to the hatchery are currently uncertain.