Commercial fishermen in B.C. who have been shut out of the Fraser River sockeye fishery for the last three years are gearing up for what could be a decent harvest.
Fraser River sockeye experienced the lowest returns on record in 2019 – just 590,000 -- and then broke that record in 2020 with just 398,000 fish returning.
Returns in 2021 were a bit higher than expected – 2.5 million – but the estimates came in too late to allow for commercial openings.
Fisheries managers need to ensure 1 million Fraser River sockeye escape to spawn before any openings are allowed. In 2019 and 2020, not enough Fraser River sockeye returned to even meet escapement targets, let alone allow for any openings.
But every four years, Fraser River sockeye tend to return in relative abundance, and this is expected to be one of those abundant years.
This year’s pre-season forecast is for 9.8 million Fraser River sockeye, which would be more than enough to support commercial openings.
“It’s expected this should be one of our better return years,” said Fiona Martens, chief of fisheries management programs for the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC).
“People are fairly optimistic, and none of our data would indicate that they shouldn’t be optimistic at this time.”
There are four management populations -- early Stuart, early summer, summer and late summer. The largest run would normally expected to be the late summer run, which includes Adams River sockeye. But early indications are that the summer run could actually eclipse the late summer run in size.
It is still too early to say if the summer and late summer runs will come in as forecast, but test fisheries for Fraser River early Stuart sockeye, as well as Skeena River and Barkley Sound sockeye, suggest fairly healthy returns for sockeye in general, said Greg Taylor, a fishery adviser for Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
As of July 29, test fisheries reported 442,800 Fraser River sockeye returns. The early Stuart run -- forecasted at 105,000 – actually came in at 230,000.
“Early Stuarts came in really good – like, huge,” Taylor said. “Way, way better than expected.”
“It certainly suggests we are going to have a fishery this year,” he said.
Sockeye returns in the more northern range – from Bristol Bay in Alaska to Barkley Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island -- have been “phenomenal,” Taylor said.
“Skeena’s phenomenal – double – Barkley Sound was double, and the Fraser River looks OK,” Taylor said.
“Skeena’s better than forecast,” Martens said. “Nass is better than forecast. I think Barkley (Sound) did better than forecast, and there’s areas in Washington State, like Baker Lake, that is better than forecast. So a lot of those other sockeye returns are doing better than forecast.”
Taylor suspects sockeye are coming back this year in relative abundance thanks to the La Nina system, which has cooled ocean temperatures for the last couple of years.
“We’re seeing these decreased ocean temperatures and we know that that benefits salmon,” Taylor said.
“When water temperatures went up, we saw salmon productivity collapse. We’re seeing it the other way around now, and that bodes well not only for this year, but maybe for the next couple of years.”
Despite relatively strong Skeena River sockeye returns, Taylor said commercial fishermen may not be able to fully exploit a total allowable catch (TAC) for that region, because the northern commercial fishing sector has been devastated after years of commercial closures.
“That’s an interesting story into itself -- the collapse of the infrastructure in the north to the point that they can’t even catch the commercial allocation. They might catch half the TAC.
“Part of it is there is absolutely no infrastructure left. That includes boats, processing, ice, and also the gillnetters are faced with new PSSI (Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative) rules in terms of how they do fish.
“They’re not going to come anywhere near catching the commercial TAC, and that is because there is a lack of a fleet up there now. No infrastructure’s left. They can’t even load the few boats they have that are fishing and get them ice.”
As for salmon species other than sockeye, pink salmon returns for the north coast have been dismal, Taylor said.
“You drop down from there into the top of Johnstone Strait, the real good news story there, looks like there’s some pink salmon there. Sport fishermen are reporting quite a few – a good body of pinks in the northern Georgia Strait and Johnstone Strait.”
Hatchery Chinook for the west and east coast of Vancouver Island appear to be fairly abundant, Taylor said, though wild spring Chinook for the Fraser River appear to be doing poorly.