Column: Lower water making for a tough summer for salmon

Federal fisheries were warning about record ocean and river temperatures and lower water levels giving a double whammy to B.C. salmon.

Just about everyone knew this was coming. With the Chilliwack River recording flows at 32 per cent of the median flow, well below the recorded minimum flow of the river for this time of year, and many other rivers at or below minimum flows, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has closed fishing for salmon along the Fraser River in sub-areas 29-6, 29-7, 29-9, and 29-10 and the tidal waters of the Fraser.

Those sub-areas are also known as the banana. The tidal waters are those waters from the mouth of the Fraser to the downstream edge of the CPR Bridge at Mission.

FOC stated that current run size estimates of Fraser River summer run sockeye salmon combined with record water temperatures have resulted in no allowable harvest and a conservation concern.

“We are definitely in favour of the closure if conservation is the concern,” said Gary Wardroper, owner of Chilliwack Dart and Tackle. “They are saying it’s about the stocks of concern and we are all about that in the store.”

By and large, customers are right behind him. While some might question if there’s a hidden agenda, Wardroper said that there is no hidden agenda on this issue. “It’s truly about the fish. The fish stocks are very low. We need to see all of the sockeye get to the spawning beds so that they will come back in three or four years. It’s an investment in the future.”

A month ago, federal fisheries were warning about record ocean and river temperatures and lower water levels giving a double whammy to B.C. salmon. For young salmon that have swum out to sea, they are dealing with not only the warm waters killing off some of their food but a rise in predators. The conditions could result in weak, undersize fish that might not survive a return migration. Chances are that there could well be lower numbers of salmon returning to spawning beds in the future.

The warm river waters are also deadly hazards. The salmon’s swimming performance is affected when water temperatures reach 18 degrees C. A weakened immune system leaves them open for disease. With each increasing degree, conditions get dire. In past hot summers, as many as 40 to 70 per cent of returning salmon died before they were able to spawn.

But all is not yet lost for fishing opportunities.

“We’re going to be fishing on the Fraser at the end of the month,” said Wardroper. “That will be for pink, chum, and spring salmon. By then, the sockeye will have already passed through and there will be no impact on them.”

He said that usually late sockeye runs are a little more abundant. With the pinks in the system there will be little impact on the sockeye and the pinks tend to push the sockeye further out than where people can target them.

“The pink salmon notoriously come closer in,” he explained. “They are a lazy fish and they choose the easiest water and push all the sockeye fish out into the middle of the river. We’re expecting between 10 and 20 million pinks coming back.”

Even so, with this hot and excessively dry year, many are wondering what is ahead. Wardroper, who has been in business for 26 years, said he has never seen the Chilliwack River this low.

Will the Blob in the North Pacific Ocean, where surface temperatures are three degrees Celsius warmer than normal, work with the coming El Nino to push us through another warm, snow-free winter?

Will that lead to another spring with little meltwater to feed the streams and rivers? If so, where will the salmon go to pass on their genes?