British Columbia

Skeena River sockeye returns at historic lows

This year's return of Skeena River sockeye is setting up to be the worst on record.

Closing will 'have a crushing economic impact on the entire northwest,' says MP

'Shuttering the fishery to sport and recreational fishers for such a chunk of the season will have a crushing economic impact on the entire northwest,' said Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for the Skeena. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

This year's return of Skeena River sockeye is setting up to be the worst on record.

As a result, First Nations along the river have agreed not to remove sockeye from the river, a decision made only once before when the same run returned in dismal numbers in 2013.

The low numbers have also prompted Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to close the region's lucrative sports fishery to all salmon species until July 15.

The ministry said it's still unclear how many sockeye it expects this year, but in 2013 the total estimated return was around 450,000.

As of June 27, 2017, just shy of 13,000 sockeye had returned. By the same day in 2013 a total of more than 25,000 sockeye had made their way up the river. 

Recreational fishing attracts thousands of tourists to the northwest coast each year. The closing represents a significant blow to the regional economy.

Sport fishing for chinook, coho and pink salmon will reopen on July 15, but there will be stricter regulations for fisherman looking to keep their catch, and sockeye and chum fisheries will remain closed for the duration of the season. 

"Shuttering the fishery to sport and recreational fishers for such a chunk of the season will have a crushing economic impact on the entire northwest," said Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for the Skeena, in a statement.

Pacific blob cited

Cullen blamed Fisheries and Oceans Canada for years of "rampant cuts to hatcheries" as well as protection and enhancement programs, saying the closure could have been prevented.

DFO, however, is blaming the so-called blob of tropically warm Pacific Ocean water that arrived off the coast in 2014 and stayed until late 2015. The mass of warm water resulted in higher than normal mortality rates for four and five-year-old sockeye that were in the ocean at the time.

According to staff at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, small salmon fry (young salmon) that entered the ocean in those years were also affected by the unusually high ocean temperatures.

If federal officials are correct in their predictions — that sockeye born in 2012 and 2013 died in high numbers in the ocean — it would mean the first-ever recorded double brood-year collapse of a Skeena sockeye fishery.

A double brood-year collapse occurs when salmon in two successive years return to spawn in dangerously low numbers.

"It's still going to be until after the first week in July before we get a sense of what that return will be," said Colin Masson, Fisheries and Oceans area director for the North Coast.

Recreational fly fisherman on the Skeena River, between Prince Rupert and Terrace, fish for sockeye in July, 2016. (Ash Kelly)

Freezers filled with salmon

The Skeena River sockeye run is one of B.C.'s largest, second only to runs on the Fraser River. Many in the area rely on work in commercial or recreational fishing and First Nations have used the sockeye as a food and ceremonial fishery for thousands of years.

Socially, economically and culturally, salmon are quintessential in Indigenous art and storytelling. Each year, thousands of basement freezers are filled with the bright pink flesh.

In a good year, locals mark the arrival of the sockeye with festivals and community barbecues. Smoke wafts from huts where the fish are hung for preservation, and thousands of cans of salmon are sealed and saved for the winter.

But lately, good years have been few and far between.

Salmon in jeopardy

Climate change, habitat loss, warming oceans and changing river conditions are a handful of the factors that salmon are swimming against.

While scientists scramble to understand the full effects of the blob, the salmon have long been in jeopardy.

More than 90 per cent of Skeena sockeye are born as smolts in Babine Lake, according to the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.

In 2012, roughly 100 million smolts were estimated to have left the lake for the sea. In 2013, that number plummeted to 21 million. Each year since then, the river has has seen progressively lower returns.

Age four and five sockeye are returning in low numbers, creating the worst ever recorded double brood-year collapse on the Skeena, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (CBC)

Alison Oliver is an avid fly fisher and an aquatic ecologist focused on coastal biogeochemistry and water quality. Oliver lives in the Kispiox Valley near the Skeena, where she fishes. She blames a number of issues for population declines, including the warm water blob, river water quality, forestry and development practices and the loss of upstream habitat.

Oliver wants to see more closings on the Skeena to ensure the health of future stocks. She said the federal government's decision to close the Skeena was a good one.

However, she disagrees with Cullen's call to support hatcheries where salmon eggs are hatched under artificial conditions before being released into the wild to bolster stocks.

"People want to catch fish and the easiest, quickest solution for appeasing that hunger is to create hatchery programs," said Oliver. "It's not a long term solution."

Critics of hatcheries say hatchery fish, which don't go through the process of natural selection, are genetically inferior.

Cullen said there are some hatcheries that have adopted more modern practices, including rearing young salmon in the ocean to attempt to keep the gene pool diverse.

"I think there's good hatcheries and bad ones," said Cullen. "The ones that put a lot of science and work into making sure the fish that are hatching are diverse and resilient are the ones that you want to support."


Ash Kelly

Digital Producer

Ash Kelly is an associate producer for CBC Radio and online. Her CBC outdoor column, 'The Great Wide Open' focuses on nuanced stories about life outdoors. It airs province-wide every two weeks. You can find Ash and more of her stories on Twitter @AshDKelly.