Rush of water will help chinook salmon smolts to elude hungry seals

Millions of tiny chinook salmon smolts are being released into extra-high water levels on Tuesday to help them dodge hungry seals waiting at Comox Harbour.

These hatchery-raised chinook smolts are just five grams each.

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Every chinook matters as numbers have plummeted in streams along B.C.’s coast. Canada’s federal fisheries minister has imposed fishing restrictions and closed areas to help protect stocks.

Chinook are valued because they are the favourite food of endangered southern resident killer whales. They are also renowned among sports fishermen because they are the largest of all B.C. salmon and fight when hooked.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada and B.C. Hydro are working together to assist the 1.8 million fall chinook and the 300,000 summer chinook smolts when they are released from the Puntledge River hatchery. The summer stocks are of particular concern.

Once released, the 2.1 million smolts will head about eight kilometres along the river to reach the sea.

B.C. Hydro will be increasing water flows for one day in the river.

The Crown corporation is responsible for water levels in the river, managing its upstream dam. Currently, water is running at 18 cubic metres per second, B.C. Hydro spokesman Stephen Watson said.

That will be ramped up to about 60 cubic metres per second for the Tuesday release, he said.

“What that means is the velocity of the water coming through into the ocean is much higher and the volume is much higher so it makes it harder for the seals to predate on those fish,” Watson said.

“So they have a better chance of getting past the seals.”

B.C. Hydro cut back on flows starting Wednesday to conserve water in its Comox Lake Reservoir to prepare for Tuesday. Citizens are asked to stay away from the river’s banks.

Harbour seals have been a problem for salmon at the estuary, where fresh water meets salt, and in the Cowichan River for many years.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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