Conservationists are urging continued vigilance to protect returning sockeye salmon as the Fraser River run comes in at levels far below what was forecast.
The latest estimate pegs the run size at 2.4 million salmon, barely a third of the 6.8 million mid-range projection of fishery managers.
Commercial fishing that was anticipated for August never happened because of the low returns. About 150,000 sockeye have been taken in First Nations food fisheries.
“We don’t have the abundance we were expecting,” said Jennifer Nener, Lower Fraser area director for DFO.
Unusually warm ocean temperatures over the past two years are thought to have reduced the food supply in the North Pacific for the sockeye now returning, and exposed them to more predators usually found further south.
On top of that, the salmon that have made it back to the Fraser have had to battle dangerously hot river temperatures and low stream levels as a result of this summer’s drought and last winter’s record low snowpack.
Watershed Watch Salmon Society commercial fishery adviser Greg Taylor is concerned far fewer of the stressed salmon that get past Mission will survive to reach their spawning grounds this year and effectively breed.
Last summer, 1.7 million late-run sockeye that were counted as having gone upriver never reached the spawning beds and Taylor fears a repeat is in store.
“This is nowhere near the 2009 debacle,” he said, referring to the sockeye collapse that triggered the Cohen Inquiry. “But this is not a very good scenario.”
Now, a large number of pink salmon are beginning to enter the river – that run size is projected at 14.5 million.
Commercial fishermen who have been barred from the sockeye fishery are expected to want to catch as many pinks as possible.
But seine boats that net up pinks in the weeks ahead could end up killing late-running sockeye as a bycatch.
Late sockeye returns are down sharply from a forecast 1.24 million to an estimated 300,000.
Commercial boats fishing for pinks would be directed to release sockeye that are caught but Taylor is skeptical many netted sockeye would survive after being tossed back.
“You’ve got to have extremely good compliance, you’ve got to have good fishing techniques in terms of handling those fish and you’ve got to have observers on board,” he said.
“I know people want to get at those pinks and we’re not saying no pink fishing. But there are real concerns about that fishery.”
Sports fishing for Fraser sockeye has also been banned this summer and there’s been growing pressure on some anglers who claim to fish for other species but use bottom bouncing or “flossing” techniques to snag sockeye that don’t normally bite a hook.
Taylor, a former commercial fisherman, thinks DFO should cut off all river bank fishing when sockeye is non-retention due to conservation concerns and recreational anglers refuse to use more selective methods.
But he doesn’t believe fishery managers have the political will to enforce such a policy.
“I’m appalled,” Taylor said, adding such blatant disregard of regulations by the commercial fleet would never be tolerated. “They know people are not complying. If they knew a significant component of the commercial fleet was not complying with the regulations, that fishery would be shut down. That’s a big-time double standard there.”
Pink salmon that are ocean “ranched” – raised by hatcheries and let loose to forage at sea – by Alaska, Russia and Asian countries are also thought to be a problem for sockeye in the North Pacific, where the pinks compete for food.
Alaskan fisheries in Prince William Sound are expected to net a record 100 million pinks this year, a reflection of the massive number of pink fry the U.S. state sends out to sea.
“You just can’t keep on pumping out artificially propagated fish into the North Pacific at a time when habitats may be becoming constrained because of warm water, climate change and other issues,” Taylor said.
– with files from Jennifer Feinberg, Chilliwack Progress