The annual return of the sockeye salmon and the health and well being of the Hupacasath First Nation (HFN) people and its culture enjoy an unbreakable connection. Since the beginning of time the two have shared the local seas, rivers and lakes, and have coexisted in harmony and balance – their annual calendars inexorably linked. But in the 21st Century, while the traditional bond remains strong, climatic pressures and changing economics needs have seen this relationship strained and tested.
To play a role in ensuring the health and prosperity of both the salmon and HFN, Graham Murrell, the First Nation’s new in-house marine biologist and Fisheries Manager, works with a team of dedicated volunteers and workers to ensure the yearly Sockeye runs remain strong, monitored and viable. “We work on the counters on the Sproat and Stamp Rivers,” he explained.
“I’m the Fish Manager / Biologist. I have an Environmental Science degree from the University of Guelph. I’ve worked at DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) with some contract positions over the years.
Murrell, who has been on the job since May, says his marine science background is at the heart of his ongoing duties. “The job is to work with Hupacasath First Nation to provide more of a formal biologist’s role. I oversee the operational aspects, working with Leon Lauder, the Fisheries Crew Chief who looks after the people there. We provide all of the estimates (fish counts) to DFO,” he said.
“The water levels are extremely low right now which causes all sorts of problems. At the Stamp River we generate our own power which is entirely dependent on water flow (run of river generating system). We’re limping through right now, we’ve managed to get things fixed up there for a while, but they’re supposed to drop the river flows there again so that may set us back. That may take our hydro offline.”
Using a range of state of the art tools, Murrell, Lauder and their crews maintain an around the clock vigil of the incoming sockeye. “We have high definition video cameras in the fishways. So the counters will review 24 hours per day in the slow times. Due to the drought conditions we’re seeing about half of what we normally would, half of what was expected to come through so far,” he explained.
“From July 1st we were expecting perhaps 150,000, based on the run size, but we’ve seen about 75,000 at this point. It depends from year to year what the run size will be, it could be runs up to 1.6 million or so, which would be one of the top runs ever. It’s been decent the past few years, 2012 was a very good year. This year, optimally we’re looking to get about 350,000. You have escapement, you have catch and all the other sectors which totals up to the total run. DFO has upgraded the total run to 1.4, which is a really good run. Locally the fishing’s been great, it’s been really successful.”
Drought impacting fish health & numbers
For Murrell and his crews, the unseasonably hot weather, coupled with the unprecedented drought conditions, have made their collective jobs harder than ever. “It’s been a hectic couple of weeks around here, that’s for sure. What with equipment failures and being out late trying to fix stuff. If it doesn’t get cooler, and we get some rain we’ll lose a lot of fish, a lot of fish will die in the Inlet,” he said.
“River temperatures are up to 26 degrees, that’s lethal for salmon. We get a few up in the mornings now (when it’s cooler) but they’ve really stopped coming into the river. They head back out into the deeper, cooler water in the Inlet rather than risking the river. Even the ocean conditions are pretty poor this year, the water is hotter, the oxygen levels are low. But if they can find the cooler pockets they can hopefully hold on until the conditions improve.”
With his scientific background and the skills of the HFN crews, Murrell is confident this year’s sockeye salmon run will be successful, despite the unique pressures of the times. The salmon’s return to the Sproat and Great Central Lakes is as cyclic and eternal as the changing of the seasons, and are a huge part of the Hupacasath First Nation’s culture and history.
“What’s a good day for me?” Murrell said thoughtfully. “A good day is when you come in, we have solid counts through the counters and all our equipment is functioning as expected. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to work.”