Low return of sockeye salmon projected for Fraser River

Commercial fishery unlikely for sockeye,which may have been weakened by warm ocean 'blob' and now face poor river conditions

A low forecast for this summer’s return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River means a commercial fishery looks unlikely, or very small at best.

Just under 2.3 million sockeye are projected to return this year, according to the median forecast released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

That number is no surprise to sockeye experts.

“It’s pretty small but it’s also the cycle year that typically has the smallest return,” said Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission.

The fish now heading for the Fraser were spawned by a run of 2.05 million sockeye in 2012.  (In contrast, the strong phase of the cycle includes the abundant Adams River run and saw a return of 30 million in 2013.)

Lapointe said he doubts there will be any commercial fishing planned in Canadian waters, as aboriginal fisheries for food, social and ceremonial purposes have priority.

Actual returns often end up way off the median forecast, and this year’s projection indicates there’s a 25 per cent chance the sockeye run could be high as 4.2 million or as low as 1.3 million.

Last year about 2.1 million sockeye returned to the Fraser and no commercial fishing for sockeye was allowed to ensure enough fish made it upriver to spawn and meet stock conservation objectives.

But Lapointe said there are also concerns that the warm “blob” of ocean water that peaked in 2013-14 in the Gulf of Alaska may result in fewer or weaker sockeye, because of either a reduced food supply in the ocean, or more predators.

“It’s dissipated some over this period, but the water is still very warm,” Lapointe said, referring to the blob. “These fish would have gone to sea two years ago in 2014.”

Once the salmon do reach the Fraser River and its tributaries, they may be in for more trouble in fresh water, because of the growing likelihood of low stream flows and the potential for dangerously warm water temperatures.

“We’ve had very poor snowpack and that is likely going to mean the Fraser River is going to be quite low,” Lapointe said.

“It’s similar to water in a bathtub,” he said. “If the water is shallow it’s much more sensitive to what the air temperature is than if the water is deeper. So it will all depend on what kind of summer we have. If we have a hot summer, the Fraser River will react to that quite quickly.”

Last year also saw a low snowpack and low flow conditions, and he said it’s fortunate the survival rate for migrating sockeye wasn’t worse.

“It’s shaping up to be a pretty lean year,” Lapointe said. “Folks are definitely preparing for the fact this is going to be a low return and environmental conditions are not looking good.”

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