Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation near Fort St. James is starting its hatchery program.
The salmon hatchery located near Nak’albun Elementary School comes at the most opportune time, according to manager Pete Erickson.
The Big Bar landslide in June 2019 created a barrier to the vital season northward Fraser salmon migration, noted the Government of Canada.
“We’ve had 15 years of poor returns on our salmon every year with the last three consecutive years being the worst ever,” Erickson said.
“Our runs are running at less than two percent of historical numbers.”
Erickson remembered as a child seeing smokehouses line the entire lake in Nak’azdli.
Today while some new ones have been built they are few and far between.
“If you want to know devastating you watch when you have your elders, especially the matriarch, basically begging at the back of salmon trucks for salmon that we get all winter—that’s tragedy,” Erickson said.
The hatchery will be in a facility where Fisheries and Oceans Canada once operated nearly three decades ago (DFO).
For more than ten years, Erickson said Nak’azdli had fought to have it reopen when they finally received funding from Coastal GasLink as a legacy project.
“So we’re teaming up with several communities and what we want to do is we will be enhancing both the early and late Stuart sockeye,” he added.
”This year the hatchery in Takla and Chilliwack are going to do 860,000 early Stuart, and then we’ll be doing 100,000 late Stuart, and then next year the numbers should be bigger than that.”
More than 30 early Stuart had been captured early July to be sent to a hatchery in Chilliwack where the eggs would be harvested this month filling the hatcheries in Takla and Chilliwack by the end of August.
Nak’azdli’s is a bit later and likely won’t be until the end of September, Erickson said.
Enhancement will provide them with four years to improve habitat.
“We used to harvest 200,000 fish in Stuart Lake and now our license for Stuart Lake is less than what a family used to harvest traditionally,” Erickson said.
To return to their traditional ways of life in which salmon provided 75 per cent of their protein, Nak’azdli would need 80,00 fish.
Erickson said if other neighbouring communities including Takla, Tl’azt’en, Yekooche and Middle River were added to the equation, at least a quarter of a million fish would be required.
“But there’s hope. I think that we can do it,” he said.
“It has been exciting as hell because we have an opportunity to save our fish from the brink.”
Seven employees went to Lillooet to receive training last month where they further learned how to run the hatchery.
Erickson said DFO and several biologists would also teach them how to catch the fish, take the eggs and then look after them until next May when they are released.