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Somass River sockeye return doubles original forecast

By the time the run-size was re-forecast, a lot of the fish had already gone up the river.
Tseshaht member Ed Ross steers his boat on the Somass River in late July during the sockeye salmon run. The pre-season forecast hovered around 400,000, but was adjusted to 950,000 as of July 28. ERIC PLUMMER, HA-SHILTH-SA

PORT ALBERNI — This year’s Somass River sockeye salmon return was almost double the pre-season run estimate.

While the Somass River pre-season forecast hovered around 400,000, it was re-forecast to 950,000 as of July 28.

Uu-a-thluk deputy program manager Jim Lane said the bulk of the returning fish are four years old, meaning that ocean conditions were “favourable for their growth and survival” when they entered the ocean as juveniles in 2020.

Forecast models that predict run sizes are made based on the assumed ocean survival at the time juvenile salmon enter the sea, he said. “And that’s unknown until they come back and you can see what their survival is.”

A management forecast is used to dictate the amount of allowable catch open to fisheries, he said. It’s designed to be “precautionary” so that early returning fish are protected, he added. The management model is adjusted during the fishing season as more information on the size of the run is gathered as the fish enter the system.

This year’s wet spring and the high snowpack in B.C.’s higher mountain elevations contributed to high water levels that were cool in temperature at the beginning of the run.

Sockeye quickly migrated up the river under these favourable conditions, Lane said.

The challenge with this is that it’s difficult to gauge whether the salmon are simply migrating quickly, or if it’s a really big run, he said. “It’s confounding.”

The Somass River sockeye production originates in Great Central and Sproat lakes.

While the increased run size meant there were greater opportunities for fishermen to generate revenue, Tseshaht First Nation fisheries manager Dave Rolston said the fishery was “constrained by the initial run-size estimate.”

By the time the run-size was re-forecast, a lot of the fish had already gone up the river.

It’s a balancing act between being “very cautious” about how the run is regulated, while also trying to “provide an opportunity for people to earn a living,” Rolston said.

Les Sam was among the first fishermen on the Somass River at the beginning of the season in June.

Because the water was so high and fast, many waited until the middle of the run, he said.

“The fishing was pretty treacherous in the early part of the run,” he said. “I lost a little bit of gear. I ripped up nets on snags and stuff. If the fast water pushes you onto something, it’s hard to pull it off.”

Around 28,000 sockeye salmon were given to Tseshaht members through community distribution, Rolston said, while the total catch for the Tseshaht and Hupačasath First Nations’ economic opportunity fishery was just over 90,000.

French Creek Fresh Seafood and Hub City Fish Market are two of the economic opportunity fishery’s largest buyers, while smaller brokers and roadside sales make up the rest, Rolston said.

If fishers are able to get sockeye to market before any Alaskan fishery opens, Rolston said, they’re usually able to charge around $4.50 a pound.

But as soon as Bristol Bay in Alaska opens, he said, “they just flood the market with sockeye” and prices can drop to around $2.50 a pound. “At that point, there’s more incentive for our members to get more money for their fish by selling roadside or to specialty buyers,” Rolston said.

Now that the sockeye run has mostly passed, fishers are preparing for chinook, the largest of the Pacific salmon — and the most valuable. “It’s kind of the money fish,” Rolston said.

The forecast return of the Stamp River and the Robertson Creek Hatchery adult chinook to Barkley Sound and the Alberni Inlet is 135,000 for 2022.

After a period of a modest increase among wild populations, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says fewer chinook salmon have been making it back to their spawning grounds over the past four years. Fewer than 100 spawning salmon have been observed in some rivers on southwest Vancouver Island in recent years, making chinook a “stock of concern,” DFO said.

While Rolston said it’s easy to “get caught in depression” around changes to the ocean environment, “there’s always hope.”

“Every fisherman has to be optimistic,” he said. “You also need to be realistic — especially if you’re trying to earn a living.”

— Ha-Shilth-Sa

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