A B.C. environmental organization says the low number of salmon returning to the province's waterways shows that not enough is being done by the government department responsible for the fish's welfare.
The Fraser River sockeye salmon late-summer return was 10 per cent of what Department of Fisheries and Oceans forecasters were expecting. About 10 million sockeye were expected to show up, but only 1.1 million made it into the river, according to department figures.
The lack of sockeye — the salmon species with the highest market value — is raising questions about the department's ability to forecast and manage runs vital to commercial, sport and First Nations fishermen.
There's not enough research being done on what happens to salmon during the years they spend at sea, according to Jeffrey Young, a biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver.
"There could be some answers if we look really hard," Young told CBC News Wednesday.
"We do support increased monitoring and science to figure out some of these problems. But we need to take steps now on the things we can control, including over-fishing and habitat loss, and until we do that we can expect populations to decline," Young said.
After two of the leanest years on record, scientists had predicted a healthy return of sockeye in 2009. The original prediction was largely based on the strong spawning year in 2005 and the salmon's four-year life cycle, but was considered to be accurate only 50 per cent of the time.
Ecologist Craig Orr, who studies sockeye as the executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the cause of what is now three years of low returns is unclear.
Some experts blame warmer ocean and river temperatures, and declining food supplies in the open oceans for the failing salmon runs.
But warmer water temperatures can't fully explain the demise of so many fish, said Orr, who is calling for a full investigation of the impact of fish farming and sea lice on wild stocks.
Scientists, environmentalists, politicians and fish farmers have been arguing for years about the impact salmon farms are having on young salmon fry, with many opponents of fish farms predicting sea lice from the industrial operations would decimate wild salmon stocks
There are also concerns this year about the broader ecosystem in areas where salmon returns are low. Grizzly bears in some river systems, for instance, aren't getting the fish they need in order to fatten up and survive the coming winter, Young said.