British Columbia

Fishermen, First Nations brace for another low Fraser sockeye return

Following a record-low year for the Fraser River salmon run in 2016, fisheries officials are keeping a close eye on returns in a season already showing some signs of trouble.

Forecasts still call for much higher returns than record-low 2016 numbers

All sockeye salmon fisheries were suspended in 2016 because of low returns. (Horsefly River Salmon Festival/Facebook)

Following a record-low year for the Fraser River salmon run in 2016, fisheries officials are keeping a close eye on returns in a season already showing some signs of trouble.

Last summer, Fisheries and Oceans Canada suspended all sockeye fisheries along the river after a poor forecast that ultimately led to returns of 853,000 fish — the lowest number on record.

It's still early in the season, but the 2017 season isn't shaping up to be quite so disappointing, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission's chief biologist, Mike LaPointe.

"This year's return is forecast to be significantly better. It's supposed to be in the four million, 4.2 million range," LaPointe said.

But there are some discouraging signs about conditions on the Fraser.

The latest report from Fisheries and Oceans Canada shows that temperatures at many points along the river are above historical averages. In some places, they're approaching 18 C — the point at which salmon start showing decreased swimming speeds.

Meanwhile, river flow levels are below average, which could cause water temperatures to rise quickly in the event of of a warm spell.

Unused boats

Brian McKinlay, owner of Silversides Fishing Adventures, isn't holding his breath over the forecast, which can shift dramatically. And he says even if four million return, the numbers just aren't what they used to be.

"When I first started my business in 1996, we would sell lots of sockeye salmon charters. They were a substantial part of our income ... that's all but gone," he said.

A worker with Fisheries and Oceans Canada tosses a sockeye salmon back into the water northeast of Vancouver, B.C. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

McKinlay has six sport fishing charter boats in his fleet. But as sockeye returns have dwindled over the past two decades, only one or two of his boats make it out per day during the summer season.

"Financially, its been quite a burden," he said, estimating his revenue losses to be around $100,000.

Remote First Nations vulnerable

Local First Nations expect to be hit by the low returns forecast. Last year, Indigenous fisheries were limited to some food and ceremonial catches. Chief Ernie Crey of the Cheam First Nation expects much the same this year.

"We're in the low-point of the trough for sockeye return," said Crey. "There [likely won't be any] sales fishery for the First Nations on sockeye this year and probably very, very modest food, social, or ceremonial fisheries."

Ernie Crey says the low returns will adversely affect diet and cultural ceremonies in First Nations along the Fraser Watershed. (CBC)

Crey says there are over 80 First Nations in the Fraser watershed, all of which rely on the sockeye stock for food and ceremonial needs.

"Many of these First Nations will probably see very little sockeye or none at all," he said. "It's one of their principal sources of protein for their diets."

"It spells hardship for them ... most of them are small and impoverished communities where there isn't a lot of disposable income."

Elsewhere in the province, the Skeena River sockeye run this year is expected to be the worst on record, and First Nations have agreed not to remove any fish from the river.

With files from Bethany Lindsay