Hint of good news in dire Fraser River salmon run

The good news for this year’s troubled Fraser River salmon stocks is that high levels of freshwater run-off have been dropping in recent days, giving returning fish a better chance of making it past the Big Bar slide and to their home streams to spawn. But that boost is unlikely to offset the historically low return of 283,000 sockeye forecast for the run this year.

“Overall, the situation is quite dire. The run is returning at low levels,” said Catherine Michielsens, chief of fisheries management science for the Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Commission.

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“We have now seen enough of the run already to not expect any major surprises in terms of numbers being very different.”

It was already known that survival rates for this year’s Fraser River sockeye stocks would be below average, Michielsens said from Vancouver Thursday. That’s because as juveniles, the fish experienced warmer-than-average river temperatures in the Fraser River. They also faced above-average discharge levels in the river, making it more difficult to reach the ocean, she said. In the ocean, poor environmental conditions affecting their prey in the northeast Pacific hurt their survival rates as well.

“There’s a substantial decline in salmon productivity and that’s been occurring for quite a while. But this year, especially and similar to last year, marine survival has been very low,” Michielsens said.

The Fraser River in good years has seen tens of millions of sockeye return, sustaining First Nations and commercial and recreational fisheries and their coastal communities.

But there are no fisheries this year for Fraser River-bound sockeye because of conservation concerns.

The current low forecast follows last year’s previous historic low return of 485,900.

In 2018, a dominant cycle year for sockeye, which are on a four-year cycle, close to 11 million returned to the Fraser River, allowing for a total catch of 5.9 million fish.

So far this season, 65,000 sockeye and chinook salmon have been counted in the river below the Big Bar slide, 64 kilometres north of Lillooet.

A total 30,000 salmon have been counted above the slide, about 30 per cent of which are expected to be sockeye, Michielsens said.

The slide, reported in June last year, resulted in more than 85,000 cubic metres of rock shearing off a cliff into the river, where salmon were trapped below a five-metre tall waterfall. A natural fishway was built over the winter to allow salmon around the slide area.

Because discharge levels have dropped substantially in the past few days, the new fishway has been “successful at this point at allowing both sockeye and chinook to migrate above the side,” Michielsens said.

As well, a new salmon cannon will carry salmon past Big Bar. About 5,300 salmon have used the cannon this season and another 1,500 have been carried by truck, Michielsens said.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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