B.C. sockeye salmon return still uncertain

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      With the federal commission of inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye set to hold preliminary hearings this month, it remains to be seen whether 2010 will see a repeat of last year’s disastrous numbers.

      In 2009, only about 1.7 million of the prized salmon came back to the Fraser. That was more than 80 percent lower than the federal department’s midpoint prediction of 10.6 million. It also marked the third consecutive year that the sockeye fishery has collapsed despite forecasts of abundance. This led to the creation of the commission of inquiry, which is headed by B.C. Supreme Court justice Bruce Cohen.

      Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, is keeping his fingers crossed that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has gotten its numbers right this time around.

      “The forecasts are positive, optimistic, but then they were last year too,” Crey told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “While the forecasts are good, the actual returns may not be as good.”

      According to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada salmon-management plan for southern B.C. covering the period between June 1, 2010, and May 31, 2011, there’s a 50-percent chance that 11.4 million sockeye will come back this year. Overall, the department’s estimates range from a low returning stock of 4.6 million sockeye to a high of 29.8 million.

      Jeff Grout, Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific region resource manager, noted that these numbers are “preseason” figures. He also acknowledged that there is “an inherent high degree of uncertainty” in the annual forecast.

      “If the low productivity that led to those returns in 2009 continues in 2010, the returns could be much lower than forecast,” Grout told the Straight in a phone interview. “Given the uncertainty in the forecast, the department relies on an in-season abundance assessment for planning fisheries. Our test fisheries usually begin early in July.”

      The Cohen commission will release a discussion paper in early June on issues surrounding the decline of the sockeye, according to inquiry spokesperson Carla Shore.

      The document will serve as the basis for preliminary hearings set to start in mid June, Shore told the Straight.

      Around that time, the first of the so-called “early Stuart” sockeye, which end up in Stuart Lake in central B.C., will be about to enter the Fraser from the ocean, according to Crey. This batch will be followed toward the end of the month by three other salmon runs lasting over the summer and into September and October.

      It will be late fall before the year’s sockeye situation can be fully assessed.

      According to Crey, much depends on what is commonly referred to as the dominant Adams River run. This event occurs once every four years when large numbers of sockeye hatched in this Interior river migrate back to it by swimming hundreds of kilometres up the Fraser and Thompson rivers.

      This is one of those years, Crey said. In previous years, hordes of local and international tourists have come to the Adams River near the town of Chase in order to observe the salmon spawning in clear, shallow waters.

      “It’s the late-run sockeye that will make up most of the returning sockeye this year,” Crey said. “If there’s going to be a commercial fishery, it will be the late-run sockeye.”

      Fisheries and Oceans’ midpoint prediction for the late-run sockeye is eight million, or 70 percent of its overall sockeye midpoint forecast of 11.4 million.

      By the fall, the Cohen commission’s hearings will be going strong, and many like Crey expect a lot from this inquiry.

      “If the Cohen commission can figure out why they [the sockeye] didn’t come back [the last three years], I expect them to tell us,” Crey said. “If they can’t, I expect them not to mince words and say, ”˜We don’t know why.’?”

      While Crey recognizes that this year’s sockeye return may end up as bad as 2009’s, he’s hoping it will be better.