ORES is a British Columbia Society incorporated in 1983 with the mandate to “enhance, restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat of the Oyster River watershed.” The core of ORES is its volunteer membership of about 350, of whom 50 to 60 actively carry out the work needed to operate ORES’ salmon hatchery in Bear Creek Nature Park.
This is a picture of the club house when it was first built.
From the same angle as the previous picture, you can see how out buildings have been added and all the growth that has occurred. The river and surrounding forest is booming with life.
TThe Oyster River was once a prolific producer of salmon, trout and steelhead, famous for its sportfishing, but beginning in the 1960s, poor logging practices and commercial overfishing decimated fish populations. Estimated fish numbers in the early 1980's were very low: coho 1,000; chinook a handful; pinks 2-500; chum 50-200; steelhead 500 and cutthroat 500.
With the help of a generous donation from John and Marie Ferguson, ORES was incorporated in 1983 as a British Columbia Society, with the mandate to “enhance, restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat of the Oyster River watershed.” The core of ORES has been its volunteer membership of up to 350, of whom 50 to 60 actively carry out the work needed to operate ORES’ salmon hatchery in Bear Creek Nature Park.
The history begins in 1962 when philanthropist Barrett Montfort donated 1,746 acres (of which 160 would become the park) to The University of British Columbia for agriculture and research. In 2005, UBC sold these holdings to a local farming company. One of the conditions of the sale was that the company would let ORES continue to operate its hatchery. In 2012, the farming company sold what is now the Bear Creek Nature Park to Ducks Unlimited and the Comox Valley Regional District. Five parties provided the funds to buy the land. In alphabetical order, they were: the Comox Valley Regional District, Ducks Unlimited, The Government of Canada, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and a local philanthropist. The Comox Valley Regional District lets ORES operate its hatchery in the wetlands of the park, which occupy about 60 acres of the park’s total area. ORES owes its presence in the park to the generosity of individuals, the help of different levels of government and charities, and the tireless efforts of its volunteers.
Major improvements at the hatchery began in August 1985, two years after ORES was established. A crew of volunteers, with local, provincial and federal support, began construction on a 110 sqm hatchery building, an egg incubation building, and the off-river Channel One. Both buildings were built of cottonwood milled on the site. Channel One is 300m long and comprises a 30m siltation pond, 2x 30m rearing areas divided by three screened weirs and 200m of spawning gravel. The channel now flows through 1km of beaver ponds before rejoining the Oyster River.
Coho were captured from the river in fall 1985, beginning a successful program of incubating and rearing native coho stock. Chinook and pink salmon eggs and fry were provided by Big Qualicum and Quinsam River Hatcheries and chum eggs by the Puntledge Hatchery.
Joe Bye was the first hatchery manager, his wife Sally Giles the primary fund raiser. Volunteers visited the site twice a day on weekends to check incubators, screens and intakes and record data. A propane heater protected the incubators from freezing in cold weather; school tours of the hatchery soon began.
By March 1988, ORES had the capacity to produce annually 100,000 chinook smolts, 150,000 coho smolts, 1,000,000 or more pink fry and 100,000 chum fry. With survival rates of chinook and coho released as smolts significantly higher than the same fish released as fry, large numbers of returning fish became available for harvest by commercial and recreational fishermen.
Coho are by and large, small tributary spawners. To provide wild coho with better access to habitat, in July '88 work began on a fish ladder for Woodhus Slough, beaver dams were cleared on Bear Creek and the Little Oyster, and UBC Research Farm gave permission for the construction of Channel Two at the hatchery site.
In 1996, Frank and Jitka Petruzelka became the second talented husband and wife team to dedicate themselves to ORES. As hatchery manager, Frank oversaw the creation of the Arthur Mayse, Raven and Connolly side channels, and the Rippingale Channel complex; these channels provide vital quality habitat for the natural spawning, rearing and overwintering of salmon and trout.
Since 1996, in a typical year 30,000 to 50,000 spawning pink, coho, chinook, and chum salmon return to the Oyster River. During this time we have expanded our incubation facilities, adding moist incubators for incubating eggs, and additional Heath trays for rearing of fry. We have also added several round holding tanks which help avoid injury to broodstock fish.
Under our current hatchery manager Lyle Edmunds, our operations have been improved and modernized. We have upgraded our power system with additional solar panels (there is no public power available at the site), and an automated backup generator. For the safety of our volunteers, we have sponsored first aid training for designated members, and have installed a cellphone booster at the hatchery building. Along with our broodstock capture, we participate in ongoing scientific collaborations with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and with local research groups.
Over a number of years, through the "Stream to Sea Program - Salmonids in the Classroom" program and with guidance and support from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, ORES has coordinated with a few schools in the local area to grow Coho salmon eggs in DFO-provided aquariums, where the students can observe the eggs evolve into free swimming fry. We then lead a discussion regarding the salmon lifecycle and the effects of the environment on the health and development of the fish. When the fish are ready, the students bring them to the hatchery on a field trip and release them to continue their life cycle.
ORES also supports the Provincial Youth and Ecological Restoration Program. We host students of this program on most volunteer days. They help out with fish feeding, screen cleaning, and they learn about watershed ecology.
The Oyster River Enhancement Society has been blessed over the years with many thoughtful committed people, hardworking and resourceful. With partnership and community funding and support, ORES has helped the Oyster River become one of the most productive volunteer-driven salmon producers on Vancouver Island.