It was supposed to have been a triumphant afternoon.
Members of the Sidney Anglers Association gathered at the James Island wharf in Central Saanich last Wednesday to oversee the release of about 18,000 Coho salmon smolts into a net pen secured to the dock.
The project is a collaborative effort between the Anglers and the Tsawout Fisheries to help enhance and replenish Coho salmon stocks in the Salish Sea, and is in its fourth year.
All was set to be an exciting release of the fish into the ocean when an equipment failure struck a huge blow to the project.
A hose on the oxygen delivery system of one tank failed, causing 5,000 smolts to die.
It’s the unfortunate result of having to deal with “second-rate equipment,” said Sidney Anglers director Grant MacPherson.
“Most of the stuff is begged, borrowed or stolen. That’s what we’re faced with,” he said. “With expertise we’re rich, but we don’t have a lot of financial resources.”
The loss represents thousands of volunteer hours, something the project is already short on.
It takes a year and a half and an extraordinary amount of effort to raise the fish from eggs to smolts at the Goldstream Volunteer Hatchery, said Sidney Anglers executive Clive Lane.
“It takes so much to put this all together.”
Past years have been successful, though it’s difficult to say exactly how many fish the net pen project has put back into local waters.
“We’ve had astonishing returns into the Gorge,” said MacPherson. “We’re making inroads, but there’s still so much we have to do. The work that goes in for each of those fish to get to that level … it’s a huge loss.”
Their efforts aren’t just to increase the stocks for sport fishermen, he added. The Sidney Anglers are working diligently to ensure that the entire West Coast ecosystem remains intact.
“People want the eagles and the whales and the bears, but you don’t get that without the fish,” he said. “We don’t just raise fish. What we’re trying to do is raise good stewards.”
But even as MacPherson watched his fellow Anglers scoop the dead Coho and toss them into the open ocean, a thin silver lining shone through.
“There’s going to be great crabbing off this dock for a few days,” said MacPherson, watching a flock of screeling gulls feast on the floating smolts. “And then those people will take them home and feed their families, and nothing goes to waste.”
For more information on the Sidney Anglers Association or the net pen project and how to volunteer, visit sidneyanglers.ca.