British Columbia

B.C. salmon bonanza provokes management debate

The sockeye salmon bonanza on B.C.'s Fraser River is provoking wide-ranging debate about why the fish stock levels are fluctuating so wildly and how they are monitored and managed.
Gillnet fishermen Jeff Doyle and Dick Andersen hold up some of their catch during the sockeye salmon opening on B.C.'s Fraser River, south of Vancouver. ((CBC))

The sockeye salmon bonanza on B.C.'s Fraser River is provoking wide-ranging debate about why the fish stock levels are fluctuating so wildly and how they are monitored and managed.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Jeff Grout said the return rate for salmon this year is roughly 10 times better than last year.

"We're seeing a little over a five-fold return on the number of spawners, and last year for every two spawners on the grounds we had only one come back, so a very poor return," said Grout.

On Tuesday, the Pacific Salmon Commission announced it was expecting about 25 million salmon to return to the Fraser River this year, the largest run since 1913.

The Fraser River sockeye fishery opened on Wednesday for 32 hours, giving many gillnet boats their first chance in years to lay their nets. The massive run follows three years of extremely low returns that all but shut down the annual gillnet fishery on the river.

In 2009, only about 1.5 million of the 11 million sockeye salmon forecast returned to the river to spawn, prompting the federal government to launch a public inquiry into the apparent collapse of one of the world's largest salmon runs.

But with the massive return of sockeye this summer, officials remain at a loss to explain the soaring return rates.

Possible factors include disease, predators

A variety of factors affect Fraser sockeye survival, from predator populations to disease, but Simon Fraser University biologist John Reynolds believes the strong survival rates this year are likely tied to ocean temperatures.

Gillnet fishing boats work the mouth of the Fraser River for the first time in three years on Wednesday. ((CBC))

"The best speculation I think that we have at this stage is that we do know that parts of the ocean were quite cool and cool temperatures generally mean that you have an ecosystem that is more beneficial for these southern sockeye salmon," he said.

Both Grout and Reynolds agree this bonanza is a welcome surprise that may not be repeated for a long time, and management plans should not be radically altered just because of the big returns this year.

"I don't think we should basically go too far off course in our thoughts on management just because we've had this good year," Reynolds said.

"For the longer term, it's very difficult to know what to make out of any single year. It was all doom and gloom this time last year, and who would have thought that we were going to have a year like this?"

Cost of federal inquiry debated

Meanwhile, the federally appointed Cohen Commission heard from concerned citizens in Campbell River on Wednesday night, at one of its many public hearings scheduled to take place around the province.

For almost 2½ hours, Justice Bruce Cohen heard First Nations leaders, environmentalists and tourism operators blame sea lice and diseases from fish farms for the 2009 sockeye collapse, while fish farmers responded with scientific dissertations dismissing those concerns.

Sockeye await process on the Steveston docks in Richmond, B.C. ((CBC))

The only common thread appeared to be dissatisfaction with fisheries management.

Brian Gunn of the Wilderness Tourism Association said farmed fish are monitored extensively, but too little is known about the health of wild fish.

"Judge Cohen, I think one of the things that's important in terms of your recommendations is that we demand that independent sampling be done of the wild salmon," said Gunn.

Aquaculture biologist Kevin Onclin, a former contractor for DFO, said money spent on the $15-million Cohen Commission could be better used to manage the Fraser River sockeye run.

"Do we really need a commission every time we do not get what we want or expect? If history keeps repeating itself, the taxpayers are in for quite a ride," said Onclin.

"Setting up proper monitoring and reporting of sockeye populations requires a lot of money, and without the funding, it's guesswork. And I think a better use of the money from this commission would have been to finance and improve the ongoing monitoring and management of the Fraser River sockeye."

No time for complacency

Biologist Alexandra Morton, who is one of Canada's most prominent opponents of fish farms, calls the 2010 run a miracle, but warns the fishery's problems are far from over.

Farmed salmon are raised in net pens in many areas of B.C.'s West Coast. ((CBC))

"We're running blind with an extremely valuable resource here. We haven't solved the problem. We got lucky, big time. And big enough that I hope that we've now laid down a new memory with the people of British Columbia," said Morton.

This year's huge return is proof people need to step back and let nature take over, she said.

"I hope people take from this the power of this fish and its ability. They're quite a gift," Morton told CBC News.

Despite the largest salmon return in a century, Morton said she still believes open net fish farming operations should be removed from the migration routes of wild salmon on the West Coast.

"We don't allow wild birds to land in chicken farms. We don't allow wild bison to wander through cow feed lots because of bovine tuberculosis. We know that feedlots breed disease and you don't want that going back and forth to the wild. If we want to preserve this run, we need to really apply ourselves and the biology has to rule here, not the politics," she said.

B.C.'s fish farming industry argues that concerns about the spread of sea lice and other parasites and disease from farmed salmon to wild salmon remain unproven.