Sockeye run estimated at nearly seven million

Fraser River sockeye salmon unlikely to repeat recent record returns, according to pre-season forecast

Mike Armstrong

It won’t be a super sockeye run this year.

But salmon fishermen of all stripes should be allowed to get their nets or lines in the water if advance projections are on target.

Roughly 6.8 million sockeye should come back to the Fraser River this summer, plus or minus a few million, if the pre-season estimates from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are close.

That’s well off both the 20 million sockeye that returned last year as well as the modern record of 30 million a year earlier in 2013.

Still, it’s a big improvement from the dismal 1.6 million return of 2009 that triggered a federal inquiry.

“The productivity of the Fraser seems to be returning to something more near average,” said Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission.

He said more than half of this year’s sockeye return is expected to consist of salmon returning to just two lakes.

Sockeye returning to Chilko Lake make up a projected 2.4 million in-bound fish and 1.4 million are expected to return to Harrison Lake.

“It’s quite concentrated in those groups,” Lapointe said. “They will contribute the bulk of the return.”

Chilko and Harrison sockeye are part of the main summer-run group that, as usual, is expected to yield many more fish than the smaller early Stuart, early summer or late summer timing groups.

A big run of pink salmon, which come back every two years as opposed to the four-year sockeye cycle, is also expected.

Lapointe said somewhere between 10 and 20 million pinks are projected.

Pinks are expected to peak near the end of August, just two weeks after the weaker late summer run sockeye, which come after the peak of the dominant summer run.

That could create a challenge for fishery managers, who must protect weaker runs, such as the late-timed sockeye, while under pressure to authorize fisheries targeting the strong runs.

“All these stocks come back with some amount of overlaps,” Lapointe said. “The late runs will be sandwiched between the summer runs and the pink salmon, where most of the harvest is desired.”

Heavy fishing of the stronger run groups could put too much pressure on the late sockeye and raise conservation concerns, Lapointe acknowledged.

Commercial fishermen will be interested in both the summer run sockeye and the pinks, Lapointe expects, but they may have to be mostly limited to one or the other, not both.

Salmon watchers know a supposedly good run can fail to materialize and there are plenty of wildcards in play this year.

North Pacific ocean water has been unusually warm from late 2013 through 2014 and that could cause problems for both this year’s returning sockeye as well as the 2016 run, which is expected to be the weakest in the four-year cycle.

Warm oceans can deplete plankton food supplies, attract predator fish normally found only further south and play havoc with the typical migration routes of returning sockeye around Vancouver Island.

Another concern is low snowpacks, particularly in southwestern B.C.

But Lapointe said he’s not particularly worried yet.

Lower Mainland ski hills may look bare, but he noted most of the Fraser watershed further north has closer to average levels of snow, which should keep the main stem of the river cool.

“It’s not appropriate to push the panic button yet,” he said. “The snow is there for a normal pattern to result in reasonable conditions.”

He said a continuation of the warm winter and spring into a hot summer in B.C. would be a bigger concern for the survival of sockeye en route to the spawning beds.