Salmon have always been a passion of B.C. businessman Tony Allard.
As he made his money in real estate, he spent the early 2000s becoming more and more disgusted by the sea lice and diseases running rampant among B.C.’s Pacific salmon.
So one day in 2016, he built a hatchery he hoped could be a model for salmon enhancement for the whole province.
Ten years later, the re-imagined Percy Walkus Hatchery on B.C.’s central coast is in its second year. Returns have hit higher levels than average for the province, and nearly 300,000 fry were released this season alone.
“It’s been going fantastically well. We just finished the egg take this fall,” said Allard told Black Press Media by phone. He had fished in that area in the past and felt like it would be a good spot to make a difference.
The hatchery first opened back in the 1930s. Allard thought about buying it and the nearby Good Hope Cannery after becoming disappointed in the then-federal Conservative government’ efforts to restore salmon stocks.
He felt like Ottawa had ignored the results of the 2012 Cohen inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River, instead expanding open net-pen fish farms. So he took action.
|Tony Allard with his dog, Tug. (Submitted)|
He pulled together a group of business people under the name Wild Salmon Forever, an organization focused on ensuring the survival of B.C.’s wild salmon. Other activists he’d met had either given up or “moved on to a pipeline,” so he thought perhaps a business owner could add a different voice to the fight by bringing together sports fishermen, First Nations and DFO.
“I felt like I was always complaining about something. Complaining about the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, complaining about the sea lice…” Allard said. “I just thought… what are we doing with our wild salmon? That’s the life I lead.”
He met with the Wuikinuxv (Oweekeno) Nation and Sid Keay, the owner of the nearby Duncanby Fishing Lodge to talk about how they could work together to make the hatchery a hub for salmon enhancement.
Then, lodge manager and hereditary chief Ted Walkus got a Canadian icon involved.
In 2013, a few years before the hatchery was reborn, Rick Hansen came up to the lodge. Walkus was his guide.
Hansen promised that if Walkus could catch a Chinook salmon over 50 pounds that day, he would dedicate five days a year to helping promote salmon restoration.
“I was praying to my ancestors to find this man a worthwhile fish,” Walkus said. “About 45 minutes later, the rod beside where Rick was sitting absolutely exploded and we caught this beautiful fish… it was 60.5 pounds.”
Hansen was true to his word, helping connect Walkus and Allard to others with the same passion for conservation.
|Ted Walkus with a salmon caught in Rivers Inlet. (Submitted)|
The next step was to move the hatchery from Bella Bella to Rivers Inlet, in the Wuikinuxv’s traditional territory, instead of spending more than $100,000 to fly the salmon eggs and sperm to Bella Coola, and then fly the fry back.
Allard admits some of the chiefs were skeptical at the start, based on their past experiences, but says now, “if you polled the community, I think they would be solidly behind it.”
Lodge manager and Wuikinuxv hereditary chief Ted Walkus said they’ve made amazing progress, both for the salmon and the community.
“In the winter, there’s probably about 60 people that live in my community, tops, so when we can hire three or four people year-round… you’re making a difference,” said Walkus. “We want to put back into the system that we’re taking from.”
The hatchery fertilizes about 300,000 eggs from 40 female salmon each year, and end up with higher returns than average.
“If we get one or two per cent back, we’re happy,” Walkus said. “We don’t want any more than that because we don’t want to start overproducing hatchery fish over wild fish. We want to keep the gene pool as widespread as we can.”
The chinook salmon the hatchery deals with are called Wannock chinook and are one of only a few species that regularly hit more than 40 pounds. Rivers Inlet, he added, is only of only two systems in the world that produce such large fish, making them extra important to preserve.
One idea that Walkus and Allard came up with for the fishing lodge is spreading: catch and release.
All lodge guests are asked to release the Chinook salmon they catch, unless the fish is going to die. Some guests were doubtful, saying that was only “feeding the sea lions,” but Walkus doesn’t agree.
“We started tagging our caught chinook and we find them when we’re doing our intake,” he said. “I would love to see this model of our Percy Walkus Hatcheries move to other nations and other lodge owners.”