With fish stocks on either side of the country in serious decline, Tony Matahlija was faced with a sink-or-swim scenario.
The year was 1996, and as a result of his dwindling livelihood as a commercial fisherman, Matahlija took a series of government-offered courses that helped fishermen transition into other careers.
The result was the establishment of the North Fraser Salmon Assistance Society, a grassroots, Coquitlam-based group that helps preserve salmon stocks across B.C.’s south coast.
Matahlija’s latest project wrapped up in early September, and now the fruits of his labour are on full display as thousands of salmon make their way back up the Coquitlam River via newly made fish spawning channels and rearing ponds.
Matahlija teamed up with BC Hydro and a series of volunteers to build the remediation project, which is needed particularly for young fish due to the silt levels in the river.
“If fish spawn in the main channel, because of all the siltation, everything will be dead. This way, we are helping to preserve the [salmon] run,” said the Coquitlam resident.
The channels and ponds are fed alternate water sources that are cleaner than the water flowing in the river, which helps juvenile fish survive their first year.
Those contraptions also help adult salmon make it to their spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the watershed.
Matahlija and representatives from BC Hydro have already estimated more than 2,000 salmon have returned — mainly pinks and chum — while more coho are expected to return in the coming weeks. Final estimates won’t be known until later this year.
“I don’t have an exact number yet, but I believe we are talking about thousands of pink or maybe 10,000 or more chums as well,” he said.
Matahlija moved to Canada from Croatia in 1979, though he was literally born into fishing; he grew up on an island in the Adriatic Sea called Rab, where he worked as a sailor during his younger years.
Since moving to Canada and devoting his life to salmon preservation, Matahlija has helped with hatchery projects across the Tri-Cities: at both the Hyde Creek and Mossom Creek hatcheries, as well as at a hatchery in Sapperton.
He expects to be back up in the Coquitlam River watershed, doing more of the same kind of work, at this time next year as well.
“All my life, I’ve been on the water,” he said. “It’s in my blood. I was born on a skiff. Not too many people can follow this path. It’s like you are born with a gene that makes you have to be on the water all the time.”
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