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High hopes for Fraser River sockeye dashed by precipitous returns

Returns for the fabled Adams River sockeye run will likely be just one-third of expected abundance, according to revised estimates of the Pacific Salmon Commission.
Spawning sockeye salmon make their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C., in October 2014. Sockeye returns in the river are expected to be lower than forecast this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

This year’s returns of Fraser River sockeye salmon are falling drastically short of pre-season forecasts, dashing hopes for a commercial fishery and raising conservation fears for some of the more precarious stocks.

The Pacific Salmon Commission revised its estimate this week of the 2022 total return to just 56 per cent of its forecast, based on test-fishing results in the Salish Sea and Juan de Fuca Strait — 5.5 million fish compared with the forecast of 9.8 million. That’s a precipitous fall from expectations from what is supposed to be a dominant-year return for sockeye, which reproduce on a four-year cycle.

“This is something that I sort of anticipated, but hoped would never come to pass,” said Greg Taylor, a fisheries adviser for conservation group the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “There has been a weakness developing in the key run-timing group over the last few years, that is the famous Adams River run.”

The commission now estimates that the Adams’ return will total some 1.2 million fish, not quite one-third of its pre-season estimate of 3.7 million fish.

“It is especially problematic considering what almost every sockeye run from Russia to the Columbia River has done,” Taylor said of booming returns seen in many rivers.

Alaska’s famed Bristol Bay saw record returns, B.C.’s Skeena River saw returns 50 per cent above expectations and even Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island offered better commercial fishing opportunities than the area has seen in years.

To see the Fraser River runs decline so precipitously by comparison “is very disturbing,” Taylor said.

The commission’s revised estimates align with the expectations that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had adopted last week, which caused Federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray to hold commercial salmon fishing closed in B.C. waters.

Washington state fisheries managers, however, adopted the salmon commission’s earlier estimate and allowed some commercial fishing on Fraser sockeye passing through U.S. waters, which was discouraging for the DFO.

“DFO was clear during negotiations that it believed PSC run-size estimates were far too high,” said DFO spokesman Kevin Lemakay in an emailed response to questions. “We were extremely disappointed to see fisheries’ proposals allowed based on overly optimistic estimates of run sizes.”

Murray was in Vancouver Tuesday with her B.C. counterpart, Josie Osborne, minister of land, water and resource stewardship, to announce a doubling of contributions to their jointly funded B.C. Salmon Restoration and Innovation fund extending the program to 2026. No dollar figure was mentioned in Tuesday’s announcement, but governments launched that initiative in 2019 with more than $600 million in contributions over five years, and this year’s returns point to the importance of protecting and restoring stream habitat for sockeye.

Sockeye runs headed to streams on the Shuswap Lake system, including the fabled Adams River run, and the Thompson River system in particular, have seen returns much lower than expected, said Catherine Michielsens, chief of fisheries management science for the commission. The commission’s revised estimate for Thompson River returns is now 272,000 fish, just 20 per cent of its pre-season estimate, Michielsens said.

“At this point, granted it’s still very early, but it looks like the low returns are definitely impacted by what’s happening in the river for those systems,” Michielsens said.

To Taylor, the troubled Shuswap and Thompson returns speak to “real challenges in the Fraser watershed in terms of habitat and climate change.”

“We’ve really overdeveloped that whole area, we’ve got forest fires, all of it compromising the freshwater habitat and it’s really, really worrisome,” Taylor said.

The fact that Washington state fishermen were allowed commercial openings and Alaskan fisheries regularly intercept salmon headed to B.C. rivers is a sign to a conservation group Taylor advises that the Canada/U.S. Pacific Salmon Treaty needs to be rethought.

“This is yet another example of how the Pacific Salmon Treaty is failing to protect B.C. salmon runs that swim through American waters,” said Misty MacDuffee, program director for wild salmon at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.