A population of Fraser River sockeye salmon that had dwindled to such alarming numbers it prompted a federal inquiry is showing signs of improvement, says a spokesman with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
About 1.4 million to 1.6 million sockeye out of an anticipated run of 10 million returned to the river in 2009, leading the federal government to call an inquiry led by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen.
But Les Jantz, who is the co-chair of the department's Fraser River panel, said Thursday the offspring from the 2009 run are now making their own way back up the Fraser, and the department estimates those numbers could hit four million.
"Obviously it shows a sign of rebuilding when you go from 1.6 million to something, you know, that's going to probably end up over four million," he said. "That's a reasonable return.
"Fraser sockeye have had some highly variable return rates over the years, so this isn't one of the better ones, but it is an improvement."
Jantz said sockeye in 2010 returned in near-record numbers — 30 million by some estimates — and the department is seeing an improving annual trend in marine survival, and its scientists hope those numbers will continue into the future.
Still, the news isn't all good for the 2013 run, and the fishery has been closed since the second week of August because of high water temperatures and poor river conditions.
In fact, Jantz said the mortality rate of returning sockeye is expected to hit 70 per cent.
DFO targets illegal fishing on Fraser
Tom Hlavac, a spokesman for the department's conservation and protection branch, said since Aug. 16, officers have seized 10 vessels and 66 nets, and 29 investigations of fisheries offences are underway.
He said he doesn't have any accurate number of fish seized, but those numbers are "piling up pretty quickly."
Jeff Grout, the department's regional resource manager for salmon, said while officials have some conservation concerns for summer-run sockeye, migration conditions are improving, and fish are arriving on the spawning grounds in good condition.
Grout said the department wants to target more abundant stocks of pink and chinook, especially in cases where the impacts on sockeye can be reduced.
In fact, Jantz said the department now expects 16 million pink salmon to make the run this year, up from an estimate of 14 million, and officials expects further increases.
Limited chinook, chum, pink catch allowed
Grout said First Nations will be able to catch chinook on the lower Fraser during a food-social-ceremonial fishery starting Friday, but the department still wants to see sockeye released unharmed.
He said a recreational fishery allowing the retention of pink, chinook and chum will also take place in the tidal portion of the Fraser River below Mission, B.C., but above the city the fishery will allow the retention only of pink and chum.
The department is also looking at re-starting a commercial fishery for pink salmon using selective gears like seine and troll boats because there's a "good ability to release sockeye alive and unharmed."
Ernie Crey, an adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said it's good there's been a marginal improvement in the runs, but the salmon will still face stressors as they return to the spawning beds, and the question remains how many will be able to spawn successfully.
"We're not out of the woods yet, they're not out of the woods yet, and the fish are not out of the woods yet," he said.
Crey criticized the federal government for not creating a response to the Cohen Commission and urged caution.
The department says the sockeye fishery will remain closed to all fishing on the river this year, but First Nations will get the chance to participate in a chinook fishery on the lower Fraser on Friday.