Nate Orasuk was fishing out on the Puntledge on a Tuesday afternoon this month when he came across a disturbing scene – and smell.
After moving once or twice over a few hours, he’d come back to a spot near the Condensory Bridge in Courtenay and discovered hundreds of dead fish lying in the shallow waters of the river, gills up.
“We were fishing in a spot on where the water runs over rocks,” he said. “All over the pool were dead salmon smolt.”
Orasuk had been in the same spot only a couple of hours before on Oct. 6, and there was no sign of the dead smolt.
“I didn’t see anything dead then,” he said.
Wearing his waders, he leaned closer toward the surface of the water and got a whiff of something noxious. He has fished for much of his life and knows the odour of spawning salmon. This was not that smell but something more caustic.
“I could smell something,” he said. “I know a dead fish smell.”
Orasuk also knows the region well, and he had been fishing there in the days and weeks before.
“I’d been there on and off all through the weekend,” he added. “I love that river. It’s one of my favourite rivers…. That river is Courtenay’s swimming pool in the summer.”
He wondered if it was just him, so he asked another man fishing nearby about the smell. The man told him he could smell the same odour.
The following day, Orasuk went back out, and while he did not come across any more dead fish, he could still smell the noxious odour again.
Whatever happened to the young salmon seemed to happen quickly, though the incident remains a mystery. In light of the strange smell, he has questions about the water quality, as well as what it might do to the salmon run in a few years time when these fish are supposed to mature. In general, the coho run this year has been strong, he added.
Orasuk wondered if something had been flushed out of a city storm drain into the river and perhaps killed the salmon, so he got in touch with officials from different levels of government. Provincial and federal agencies have confirmed they are aware of the incident and are looking into it.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada said a fishery officer from DFO’s Conservation and Protection (C&P) program, Nanaimo Detachment field unit, conducted a site visit and was also in contact with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).
Environment and Climate Change Canada responded they were on the scene to take samples of the water, but as the investigation is still ongoing, they could not provide any details yet.’
“ECCC’s Enforcement Branch is aware of the incident at Puntledge River … and is working with partners and continuing to gather all of the information relevant to the incident. As the matter is ongoing, it would not be appropriate to provide further information at this time,” a department spokesperson told the Record.