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B.C. rivers running pink with near-record salmon returns

Sockeye numbers dwindle as abundant supply of pinks brings commercial challenges.
Boats docked at Fisherman's Wharf in Steveston. High fuel costs and depressed prices for certain kinds of salmon mean the catch may not be worth the trip for commercial fishing operations

It’s going to be another dismal year for Fraser River sockeye, but the sport fishing industry is reportedly enjoying a banner year thanks to improved chinook and coho abundance.

Pink salmon are also returning in near-record numbers, though that doesn’t necessarily mean commercial fishermen will have the chance to catch them – if they are mingled with threatened species, like sockeye – nor are they likely to make much profit from them, given depressed prices.

“The reality is we probably will not get a commercial opening on all those pinks coming back because we’re going to intercept sockeye,” said Phil Young, vice-president of fisheries and corporate affairs at the Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco), which owns seine licences. 

Fraser River sockeye was, for decades, the bread-and-butter fishery for B.C.’s commercial fishing fleet. But dwindling numbers have meant either full commercial closures or very limited openings for most years in the past decade. 

The commercial sector has been so decimated that in the north – where salmon returns to the Skeena River have supported commercial openings – commercial fishermen in some cases have not caught their allocations because there simply aren’t enough primary processing plants, ice plants or other infrastructure to support a commercial fishery.

Fraser River pink salmon were expected to come in this year at 6.1 million. But as of last week, based on test fisheries, the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) upped its in-season forecast to 20 million. If that forecast is fulfilled, it would be a near-record return – the record being 24 million Fraser River pinks in 2003.

Fraser River sockeye, on the other hand, appear to be coming in closer to their pre-season forecast of just 1.6 million. As of Aug. 29, 1.4 million Fraser River sockeye had returned. At such low levels, even Indigenous food fisheries for sockeye are being restricted.

As for pink salmon, their abundance this year throughout the entire Pacific has depressed prices to a point where the catch may not be worth the fishing trip fuel expense.

“To give you an idea how bad it is, in the final weeks in the northern pink salmon fishery, where there was a bumper crop of pink salmon to catch, one seine boat went out most openings,” said Greg Taylor of Fish First Consulting.

Throughout the Pacific, 2021 (the brood year for this year’s pink salmon) proved to be a record year for pink salmon abundance, said Greg Ruggerone, an independent researcher specializing in pink salmon. He expects 2023 will beat 2021.

“Based on current pink salmon harvests info from the salmon industry and (Alaska Department of Fish and Game), I expect 2023 to be a new record run,” Ruggerone said. “Harvests in Russia have been exceptional.  And Alaska harvests have been very large.”

As of last week, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said a commercial fishery for Area 29 (Strait of Georgia) for Fraser River pink was “under development,” as was a recreational fishery for Fraser River pinks.

As for the sport fishing sector, it was looking to cap off a banner year beginning Friday, Sept. 1, which is when the Fraser River was to open for retention of chinook for recreational fishers.

In May and June, fishermen encountered a “tremendous abundance of chinook” in Haida Gwaii, said Owen Bird, executive director for the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C.

That has not been the case in recent years. Declines in chinook abundance prompted closures and the creation of no-fishing zones in areas where southern resident killer whales feed. Anecdotally, sport fishermen have been reporting a bounty of chinook and coho this year, Bird said, which is good for fishing guides and lodges, as well as bait and tackle shops.

DFO scientist emeritus Dick Beamish, who continues doing salmon research, confirms an “exceptional coho abundance in the Strait of Georgia this year.” 

“Our research, which was continued by Chrys Neville, shows that the adult coho abundance in the strait this year is the largest since the early 1990s.”

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