After three straight years of low sockeye returns, salmon runs in the Fraser River this year are exceeding expectations.
The latest estimate of 34 million returning sockeye is second only to the 1913 run of 39 million fish. Plus, for the first time in four years, the return has been sufficient to sustain regular commercial fisheries in Canada and the United States.
"Our pre-season forecast for the total Fraser sockeye return was 11.5 million, but our current estimates are for a total return around 34.5 million," said Mike Lapointe, biologist with the Pacific Salmon Commission, in Vancouver, B.C. "There was a broad range around the pre-season forecast of between 4 and 30 million fish, and there were concerns pre-season that a recent trend of low returns might continue."
Lapointe said that 2009 was one of the lowest returns ever following consecutive, very low-returns in 2008 and 2007 seasons. "The 2009 run, in terms of productivity (number of returns) was one of the lowest we've ever seen," he said.
Last year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada forecasted a return of 10 million sockeye, but only about 1.5 million sockeye appeared. Strict conservation measures were deemed essential to help protect the future viability of some Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks.
The paltry numbers in 2009 were more unusually low than this year is high, Lapointe said. In late July, Lapointe told the Columbia Basin Bulletin that a large return to the Adams River/Lake Shuswap complex was expected, although not in the numbers that has shown up. (See CBB, July 30: "2010 Fraser River Sockeye Return Remains Uncertain; Increased Tracking Studies Seek Mortality Causes" http://www.cbbulletin.com/393661.aspx)
"The Adams sockeye returns have a four-year cycle, so we knew that the numbers would improve this year," Lapointe explained. "In recent years, there has been an issue with late runs coming early."
About 25 million sockeye of the total of 34 million are in the Shuswap Lake complex, which includes late-timed stocks such as the Adams River and early-timed stocks such as Scotch Creek. There are now 500,000 past the fence on Scotch Creek, surpassing the earlier record of 150,000. Two million have escaped in the last five days and, if estimates are correct, another 10 million late- run sockeye will leave their holding area in the lower Strait of Georgia and head to Adams River.
"For whatever reason, this run actually arrived a week later, which delayed the commencement of commercial fishing until the beginning of August," Lapointe said.
Commercial fisheries are now harvesting fish in the Fraser for the first time in years. As of Sept. 10, the estimated total commercial catch of Fraser sockeye was 10.8 million fish, while non-commercial catches (from test, First Nations Food, Social, Ceremonial, charter, and recreational fisheries) totaled 987,000 fish.
Despite significant commercial harvest and the healthy returns to the Shuswap Lake complex, fisheries have been constrained somewhat to protect Cultus sockeye, which are mixed in with the more abundant stocks.
Cultus sockeye were assessed as endangered and recommended for listing under Canada's Species at Risk Act. Though the stock is not legally listed, Cultus sockeye have been the focus of special conservation actions. This includes predator removal and habitat enhancement efforts in the lake where juveniles rear, a hatchery supplementation and captive brood program and restriction on harvest, which included a 30 percent limit in 2010.
Despite this year's large numbers of fish, concern remains for the future, as these runs have a four-year life cycle.
"We've had three years of very low runs prior to 2010, so it remains to be seen how many fish will return in 2011-2013 from the years with relative low numbers of spawners in 2007-2009," Lapointe said. "In addition, there is some debate about the potential negative effects if there are too many fish on the spawning grounds from the 2010 return. If the estimates of fish already on the spawning grounds, and those left to arrive, are correct, the numbers of spawners in the Shuswap lake system could be more than double the largest escapements observed previously in that system."
Such extreme spawning escapement may exceed the fresh water habitat capacity, and limit the number of fry that can be supported.
"Two years from now, we'll be interested to see how many juveniles are produced. This huge run may not produce more juveniles than we've seen in the past from spawning escapement in the 2-to-3 million range."
This year's run promises to be a rewarding experience for fish enthusiasts. The peak spawning period is in early October, peaking during the second week of the month, with millions of fish in brilliant red and green colors in the Adams River.
Each year, the Adams River Salmon Society holds its Salute to the Sockeye festival, held at Roderick Haig Brown Park, Oct. 2-24, 2010, in British Columbia's scenic Shuswap Region. This year's celebration opening ceremonies take place Oct. 2.
"I head up there every four years to see it," Lapointe said. "It's magnificent, and this year I'm bringing my family to see what might be a 'once in a lifetime' experience."
For more information, go to www.salmonsociety.com