British Columbia

'Quite dire': Fraser River sockeye salmon run expected to be worst ever recorded

The in-season Fraser sockeye salmon run is forecast at 283,000 this year, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission, an extremely low number following years of record low runs.

The in-season Fraser River sockeye salmon run is forecast at 283,000, according to Pacific Salmon Commission

This year is turning out to be a devastating one for Fraser River sockeye salmon, with the lowest forecast return since tracking began in 1983, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission. (Chris Corday/CBC)

This year is shaping up to be the worst for sockeye salmon in the Fraser River since tracking began in 1893, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.

The expected run has been downgraded to less than a third of pre-season forecasts, and unusually high water levels on the river have made for a challenging migration for early-season sockeye.

In addition, the Big Bar landslide north of Lillooet, which wasn't discovered until June 2019, poses a further challenge for the fish, making a section of the migration route nearly impassible.

The Fraser River salmon runs, the Early Stuart and Early Summer, will struggle to make the migration, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC).

"The majority of those runs will not reach their spawning grounds," said Catherine Michielsens, the commission's chief of fisheries management science. 

"The situation for Fraser sockeye is quite dire. We've now had two years in a row where we were having record low numbers return," said Michielsens.

The pre-season Fraser River sockeye salmon forecast was 941,000 fish, but has been downgraded to just 283,000, according to a PSC update this week.

Michielsens said the 2016 sockeye run — which is the brood year for the 2020 run — was the lowest on record at the time, with 894,000 returning salmon.

She said the sockeye runs continued to decline, with 2019 again breaking the low record with 493,000 fish.

The only glimmer of hope for the river's sockeye, according to Michielsens, is every four years there's a large Late Shuswap run, which is significant enough to make for possible fishing opportunities.

Struggles at Big Bar

The landslide at Big Bar likely happened in late 2018 but wasn't noticed until last summer after salmon had already started arriving in the area.

Work to remove the fallen rock obstructing the river has been underway, but there have been challenges and the $17.6 million contract awarded to construction giant Peter Kiewit Sons' has grown to nearly $53 million.

A landslide at Big Bar, north of Lillooet, B.C., has hindered the salmon migration in the Fraser River since the rocks gave way some time in late 2018. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada/Twitter)

Fish are being helped around the slide with various methods, including a Whooshh system, a pneumatic fish pump, also known as a "salmon cannon."

The system is responsible for transporting about 5,000 of the fish above the Big Bar slide.

Michielsens said the discharge level at the slide has lowered to about the same point as last year, and more fish should be able to make their way past now. 

"From my point of view, Big Bar is a challenge and it's disappointing, but the low run size and the low returns are an even bigger story," she said, adding that ocean and river water temperatures are tied to the low returns.

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Rafferty Baker

Video journalist

Rafferty Baker is a Video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver, as well as a writer and producer of the CBC podcast series, Pressure Cooker. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at