The mystery of Canada's huge 2010 salmon runs

On both sides of the border, commercial fishing has reaped a bonanza. But no one really knows why or how to respond, though there are clues about the need for restraint.

Some of the big sockeye runs have been seen in the Kamloops area.

Some of the big sockeye runs have been seen in the Kamloops area.

Some of the big sockeye run spawns on Canada's Adams River.

Some of the big sockeye run spawns on Canada's Adams River. Theinterior/Wikimedia Commons

Big, neon-red sockeye salmon with green heads and hooked jaws stream north along the Canadian bank, massed in slack water, shooting into the current upstream, swimming low among the boulders, then rising and resting in the shallows before they tackle the white water just ahead. Already, their carcasses, faded to gray, litter the rocks and gravel of an island toward the other side. The fish form a river within the river, a submerged current of red. They just keep coming. I recall the third stanza of Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli":

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,

Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,

Old civilizations put to the sword. . . 

Millions of fish are streaming up the Adams River, east of Kamloops in interior British Columbia. The Adams isn't a big river. The water is very clear. There may be 9 million fish. You see them.

The return of the salmon to rivers large and small is, of course, a Northwestern commonplace. But can this seasonal appearance of big fish in small streams, of bright red males competing to fertilize the eggs pinkly visible in the gravel, their bodies half out of the shallow water, chasing each other across the rocks, ever be really commonplace? Certainly, there's nothing commonplace about seeing this many fish. They make you think this is the way it used to be. And this is the way it should be.

The Adams flows south through Shuswap Lake to the south fork of the Thompson River, then to the Fraser and ultimately to salt water, 250 miles away. In a good year, the Fraser River sockeye run dwarfs any other salmon run south of Alaska, and the Fraser's largest spawning population swarms into the Adams River. Every fourth year, when the sockeye run peaks, locals hold an October “Salute to the Sockeye” at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park. (Haig-Brown was a writer, conservationist and fly fisherman who died in 1976.) Each morning, yellow school buses bounce into the grass parking area. Young kids ride their parents' shoulders to the river bank. People push wheelchairs along the dirt trails. Indians sell fry bread from trailers. It's an event.

Look at the fishie, says an excited grade-schooler on a field trip, spotting a red torpedo shape in the water. A teenager on a field trip of his own peers into the shallows and exclaims, they're feakin' big! They are indeed, although even the largest is a lot smaller than the dark bulk of the occasional chinook that lurks in the clear water beside them. (Now that Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook populations have been pushed to the list of threatened and endangered species, Fraser River chinook have become the Southern Resident Killer Whales' — i.e., Puget Sound orcas' — main nosh.)

These fish have followed clockwise gyres through the Pacific, swimming south past Southeast Alaska, then either east or west of Vancouver Island, passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or the Johnstone Strait on their way to the Fraser.

An estimated 34.5 million sockeye returned to the big river this year. An estimated 24 million of them were destined for the Shuswap area, primarily to the Adams. The government won't yet take a stab at the number that made it all the way back there, but even if you take out a percentage for Indian and other fishing and for natural deaths along the way, you still have an awful lot of fish.

This is the largest Fraser River run since 1913, the year before a rockslide caused by blasting for railroad construction in Hell's Gate, near Hope, B.C., largely blocked the Fraser to upstream migration. (More sockeye return regularly to Alaska's Bristol Bay, but they're heading for nine different river systems.) Viewed another way, no one younger than about 100 can remember seeing so many sockeye in the Fraser or its tributaries.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

"No one knew this huge run was coming. And no one can explain it."

Pretty telling commentary on our multi-layered (bloated) salmon management bureaucracy. (My local newspaper routinely refers to them as "experts".)

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Lake Washington's sockeye run, which is mostly (entirely these days?) composed of introduced hatchery fish anyway, was around 150,000. Not exactly "very few" for a run that existed in small numbers historically, but not high enough to allow for non-tribal fishing.

It's great to see so many sockeye coming back to Lake Wenatchee and Lake Osoyoos, and even Lake Cle Elum this year thanks to the efforts of the Yakama Nation. But 2,000 to Redfish Lake 900 miles from the ocean is probably about as good as it will get until the lower Snake dams are removed.

pika

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

If anyone is interested in more information, a UW Professor wrote a very readable book on it. http://www.amazon.com/King-Fish-Thousand-Year-Run-Salmon/dp/0813342996 "King Fish A Thousand Year Run" By David Montgomery

As I understand it before the Montlake cut there were NO Sockeye in Lake Washington. Maybe they came up the Black River but my understanding it is that the fish in Lake Washington came from eggs from the Fraiser River run.

Baker Lake also had a run this year, which was also amazing. That the Lake Washington run was only 150K probably means the river was washed out 3 years ago when this year's fish were mere eggs.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

"“Once those fish leave fresh water, they're just in a black box,” says University of Washington Professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Ray Hilborn. “There's no research on the ocean.”"

Years ago I asked a person with a fishery biology degree where salmon went when they entered the ocean and he said they didn't know. It appears from the above statement that is still true. Maybe we could tax the fishing industry and use the funds to find out what happens to salmon in the ocean.

Herb

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

It is a very big ocean out there, Herb. Those sockeye are eating and being eaten. They aren't traveling in a school, and this makes studying the ocean phase of their lives prohibitive. The best and perhaps only way to determine estimated returns is to collect data on outbound migration at the time these animals depart from the rivers and enter the ocean as young salmon. This data is utilized in mathematical modeling that is far from exact, however it has become much better over the years. FYR, the fishing industry in the Pacific states are taxed on the value of the catch at time of transfer from fisher to initial buyer. I believe this is also true for the Canadian fisheries.

Bella

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Bella I agree with you it is a big ocean and it would be extremely difficult to collect information on the salmon once they reach it. I know they count salmon at the dams on the Columbia when they return, but I am not sure they count them outbound, or even how you would do it given their size. But, as you say, it is probably the only way to estimate returns and see if there are any meaningful differences between outbound and inbound over time. I am sure there are a lot of variables to the problem that only a biologist would understand.

I hope some of those taxes on the fishing industry are dedicated to studying salmon, but I suspect they are not.

Herb

Posted Thu, Oct 28, 8:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Herb, taxes aside, why are we allowing harvest of a public resource without
receiving compensation from the harvesters? I don't believe we do this with public forest or mining lands.

Bella

Posted Fri, Oct 29, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Bella, sport fisherman pay the state for a license to fish for salmon. Supposedly this is to help cover the cost of counting fish at the locks and catches at the docks, and run the hatcheries. In practice I think that the Tribes count the fish at the locks. Commercial fisherman also pay for a license to catch fish as well.

GaryP

Posted Sun, Oct 31, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate


Someone needs to tell those Salmon that "overfishing" has destroyed any hope of seeing fresh seafood in the Northwest ever again.

They aren't obey Global Alarmist orders.

jabailo

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »