The worst return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River in more than a century has kept the commercial fishery shut down and curtailed aboriginal food fishing.
The run size estimate of 853,000 returning sockeye – the lowest on record since 1893 – is barely one third of the 2.3 million salmon that had been expected to come back this summer. Only twice before in the past century has the Fraser run dipped below one million.
Mike Lapointe, the chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission, agrees this year’s return is bad, but says it’s not a catastrophe on the same scale as 2009, when millions of Fraser sockeye unexpectedly went missing and triggered the Cohen Inquiry.
“I’m not sure I agree with people characterizing it as a disaster,” Lapointe said. “When you start from a spot that’s already pretty low and you get poorer than average conditions, unfortunately you can get this type of return that’s very low but not completely out of the realm of possibility.”
Pre-season estimates indicated there was a one-in-10 chance the run could be this poor.
In contrast, 2009’s return of 1.5 million was proportionally much lower than the more than 10 million sockeye anticipated and called into question the models used by fishery managers.
The bulk of sockeye in this year’s Fraser run were destined for the Chilko Lake system. Lapointe said their rate of return will likely be around 20 adult spawners for every 1,000 juveniles that went to sea. That’s much less than usual, but in 2009 the Chilko return rate was just three per 1,000.
Sockeye return on a four-year cycle and this part of the cycle is traditionally the lowest, so expectations weren’t high.
But wildly inconsistent salmon returns seem to be increasingly prevalent as the cycle gets more lopsided.
In 2010, the Fraser welcomed back a record 30 million sockeye.
And Lapointe said 2018 could once again be a big year, and even 2017 might exceed 10 million salmon, based on the number of adults that previously spawned.
There are also signs marine conditions that have been bad for a few years could improve.
A warm water blob in the North Pacific that’s thought to have reduced the food supply and attracted predators since 2014 has dissipated.
Lapointe said the recent results throw up more questions than answers.
“Is this a pattern that’s going to become more frequent because the ocean is becoming less of a favourable place for juvenile salmon?”
Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Aaron Hill agreed this summer’s record low return may not be as big a surprise and could soon reverse, but added the consequences right now are severe for First Nations who depend on salmon.
He listed past overfishing, viruses and parasites from salmon farms and extraction of water from the watershed as some of the factors that may be harming salmon populations.
“But the big one compounding all these other stressors is the climate,” Hill said.
“Not only is it the worst return on record but the fish swimming up the river are swimming into river water that’s lethally warm. A lot of fish won’t even make it to the spawning grounds. We just don’t know how many.”
More variability and wild swings in the salmon cycle appear likely, Hill added.
“It really puts a fine point on the need to move on things we know we can do to improve the numbers of salmon that get up the river and survive to spawn.”
Hill said the province has “abdicated its responsibility” to initiate more aggressive climate action to help reduce impacts on the fishery when it released its new climate plan last week.
And he said the federal government must do more to respond to the recommendations of the Cohen Commission.
“This crisis of Fraser River sockeye has not gone away.”