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Local whale watchers and fishermen raise salmon to increase food stock for whales

Last Updated Apr 28, 2018 at 6:01 pm PDT

Chinook being raised in a container. (Courtesy of Sooke Chinook Enhancement Initiative)

Tens of thousands of Chinook are being readied for the open ocean in Sooke

It's hoped the salmon released from a facility on Vancouver Island will translate into nourishment for orcas

SOOKE (NEWS 1130) – With the southern resident killer whale population – the whales off our coast – now listed as endangered, people who make their living on the ocean are taking action.

It’s called the Sooke Chinook Enhancement Initiative, and it’s led by the South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition, but supported by Springtide Whale Watching and Eco Tours.

They’re trying to increase the amount of food off our shores for the killer whales.

“The single biggest threat is the lack of prey species abundance. Until we put more food on the table, they’re not going to survive,” says Dan Kukat, of Springtide Whale Watching.

With only 78 of them left, the initiative is meant to raise juvenile Chinook salmon until they’re ready to be released into the wild.

Kukat says the way the salmon are raised, with the best nutrients and protected from predators, the smolts have a bigger chance of surviving the early stages of their lives than they would in nature.

The 500,000 Chinook in the program begin life at the egg stage at a Department of Fisheries hatchery, then are transferred to marine enclosures in Sooke roughly a month before they are ready for the wild.

“This batch will be released to the open ocean in stages, under the cover of darkness, preferably on a cloud-covered night,” explains Kukat, adding that the smolts at this point are about eight inches long and about a year old.

“It’s a unique approach in Canada. It’s the only project like this entirely privately managed and entirely privately funded.”

Last year was the first year the group released a batch of Chinook, which are expected to return to the coast in 2020.

Kukat admits once the salmon do mature there will be a lot of competition for them, from local and international fishermen, seals and sea lions, but says it’s still worth it.

He points to what’s happening to the humpback whale population on the West Coast – calling it the ‘great humpback comeback.’ He says humpbacks are being spotted where they haven’t been seen over the last one hundred years.

He is so confident about the salmon endeavour, he says he’s looking forward to something similar happening to enhance herring stocks – an important food source for salmon, seals, sea lions.