Conservationists are worried a predicted bonanza of sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River this summer will also bring a frenzy of fishing that could harm weaker stocks.
The mid-range estimate for the Fraser run is 23 million sockeye, but the pre-season forecast shows it could potentially go as high as 72 million.
“People have sockeye fever,” said Aaron Hill of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “The problem is the huge return is being driven by a few large populations. When we fish those big runs hard there’s a lot of collateral damage with smaller runs that get caught as bycatch.”
He said weaker runs that could get battered in a year of intense fishing include threatened coho salmon bound for the Thompson River, as well as smaller runs of sockeye that return to Cultus Lake, Pitt Lake, Bowron Lake and Taseko Lake.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans must manage the fishery to minimize the accidental catch of vulnerable stocks as sport, commercial and aboriginal sectors aim to catch as many sockeye as they’re allowed.
Much of the run is expected to spawn in the Adams River system and threatened salmon that arrive in B.C. waters at the same time as the Adams fish will be particularly at risk.
But Hill said DFO is instead proposing a draft salmon management plan for 2014 that could allow “alarming” rollbacks in protection for weak stocks.
One option to enable a larger catch if a huge sockeye run materializes is to boost the proportion of sockeye that can be caught or otherwise die before spawning from 60 per cent in previous years to 65 per cent, according to the DFO document.
“It’s going to mean more overfishing in 2014,” Hill said. “Across the board we’re seeing DFO caving to lobby pressure from the commercial sector and the big charter operations and fishing lodges in the sports sector.”
DFO spokesperson Michelle Imbeau said the department is still in the midst of consultations to develop the management plan that will guide fisheries, which will vary depending on how many salmon actually show up.
“No final decisions have been made at this point,” she said.
Imbeau said fisheries plans are adjusted during the fishing season depending on the run’s actual size and timing, along with other factors, and will be carefully managed to protect specific stocks of concern.
Hill argues strong runs of sockeye could be more safely targeted by fishing in specific tributaries of the Fraser, and by using selective fisheries that can release endangered salmon like Interior coho.
The sockeye now migrating back to B.C. from the north Pacific are the spawn of the massive 2010 run when 30 million unexpectedly returned.
Last year’s return of four million sockeye was more typical of recent years, although the numbers have improved since just 1.6 million sockeye returned in 2009, triggering the Cohen Inqury.