Despite an unusually large chum salmon run, the smell isn’t as strong as some years along Napoleon Creek in Cassidy.
The creek, ponds and fish ladder connect Nanaimo River Hatchery with Haslam Creek and the Nanaimo River.
About 70,000 to 80,000 chum swam up Nanaimo River this year and thousands bred in the hatchery navigated back to Napoleon Creek to dig nests, lay eggs in its gravel beds, spawn and die.
Heavy rains have flushed many of their corpses downriver. Hundreds of seagulls feed on those that wash ashore.
“This year’s been so high that it hasn’t had a chance to really leave them on the shore to rot, so it’s not too bad,” Brian Banks, hatchery co-manager, said on a walk by the creek Wednesday.
The chums’ bodies are grey, tattered and covered in whitish fungus from their exposure to fresh water.
Their run has started to wind down, but coho, bodies turning black and red for spawning, are arriving and will continue to spawn into January.
This year’s chum run is the biggest Banks has seen.
Chum runs are usually larger than other salmon species, but Banks describes this year’s as “off the charts everywhere.”
“Something out there went right for them,” Banks said.
Fall rains that swell rivers help bring salmon upriver to spawn, but this year’s heavy river flows might be too much of a good thing for the fish. Water is flowing in places where it normally doesn’t, so fish are depositing their eggs in areas that will dry out. Some fish are getting stuck in areas as water levels shift and eggs are being flushed out of nests, exposing them to elements and predators. Silt churned up can also “choke out” eggs.
“I know it’s concerning a lot of people, but it’s happening everywhere and it’s just kind of nature running its course,” Banks said.
The Nanaimo River Hatchery grounds, with trails following river dikes and wooded creekside shorelines, are a local hidden gem for nature lovers who can stand within a metre or two of spawning salmon.
The runs also attract eagles and other wildlife. Nanaimo’s Millstone and Chase rivers also provide opportunities to view runs.
“The chum is what everyone goes to see and what everyone goes to Goldstream for, but a lot of people don’t know that they can just come here,” Banks said. “It’s still a good place to see fish for about another month.”
The hatchery recently hosted its annual Spawning Day Fundraiser open house at the height of the chum run, when the public was able to see hatchery staff at work and learn about salmon and the environment.
Money raised from admission donations helps the Nanaimo River Stewardship Society – which runs the hatchery – pay for operating costs not covered by government funding.