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Cowichan River chinook run enjoys a bit of a renaissance

A Cowichan River spearfisherman shows off his catch. - Andrew Leong/file
A Cowichan River spearfisherman shows off his catch.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

The same mysterious conditions that spawned a 100-year high number of sockeye in the Fraser River are believed to have also helped chinook in the Cowichan.

That’s especially good news, considering Cowichan’s dismal chinook count last year.

“Our estimate for the number of spawning chinook is 2,500 adults and 1,700 jacks, which are essentially two-year-old chinook and pretty much all male,” Steve Baillie, a stock assessment biologist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who oversees DFO and Cowichan Tribes’ Cowichan Chinook Assessment Program.

“This was much better than last year, which was an extremely poor year — we ended up with 540 adults and 220 jacks. So based on that jack number we were not expecting that many three-year-olds this year. We were very pleasantly surprised.”

Especially considering 2010’s count was cut short.

“We usually start at the beginning of September and run the fence until the end of October, but we had a couple of storm events that brought the water up and after Thanksgiving I made the decision to remove the (counting) fence from the water,” Baillie explained.

After that, the crew — led by Philip Joe — began the second phase of the annual count program.

“The crew float down the river in inflatables, and any chinook carcasses they find they’ll pull out and do a scale sample, make notes on the length and sex and spawning conditions when it died, and then throw it back in the water,” Baillie said.

As for 2010’s improved count, Baillie had a few deductions.

“We did decrease the West Coast troll allowable catch, and this was in response to some of the chinook stocks being over-fished, like the Cowichan,” he said. “Now I’m not, of course, saying the troll over-fished, but we were trying to decrease total exploitation and this is one way of doing it, so that contributed (to the higher count).”

Then there were the conditions that also helped Fraser sockeye.

“Whatever ocean conditions were favourable for the Fraser sockeye were also favourable to Cowichan chinook — both entered the ocean during the same spring (2008).”

The Cowichan count, meanwhile, also monitors chum but hasn’t counted Cowichan coho for about three years.

“It’s the usual reason — lack of funding,” Baillie said, adding a sonar device assists in monitoring chum.

The recent count saw 140,000 chum in the Cowichan, which is right on target.

“That’s what we want to see come back every year. Some years it’s been literally double that, in which case you’ve got chum everywhere,” Baillie said.

The chinook, meanwhile, are counted by Joe’s crew that mans the counting fence two at a time for 24 hours a day in September and October, and then patrols the river counting carcasses until the end of December.

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