Huge Fraser River sockeye run raises spirits, questions

Our Vancouver correspondent: Some 30 million sockeye have returned this year, the second biggest on record. And it's all quite unexpected.

Crosscut archive image.

Sockeye salmon. (NOAA)

Our Vancouver correspondent: Some 30 million sockeye have returned this year, the second biggest on record. And it's all quite unexpected.

The Fraser River sockeye are back!  It’s hard to comprehend such a windfall—30 million salmon, the biggest sockeye run since the estimated 39 million in 1913, totally unexpected, running contrary to all the dreary trends of collapsing and declining fish stocks in oceans around the world.

British Columbia's wild salmon fishing industry, sputtering badly after years of tiny openings and boat buybacks, has scrambled to dust off every scrap of unused equipment and call back long-lost customers as it momentarily relives the glory days when thousands of people made reliable livelihoods catching, processing and selling fish.

It's like a flashback to remind us what's possible, how liquid assets will just swim up to our rivers and nets and feed us and our businesses if we just stop, ah, er, umm— actually I can't say exactly what we have to stop or start. There's the rub.

This is all a huge, wonderful mystery. It would be nice to say that we could crack it and change a few things and guarantee this happens every year. But as renowned University of British Columbia fishery researcher Daniel Pauly says, "It's surprising that after a half-century of focused research we are apparently incapable of predicting anything.'

Last year, only about 1.7 million Fraser River sockeye came back at the end of that particular four-year-cycle, although 10.6 million were predicted. Reacting to public anger and shock, the federal government announced the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, which is finally getting its membership and mandate sorted out, to find out what happened. Earlier this year, one prediction from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was "a 50 percent chance that 11.4 million will come back, with estimates ranging from 4.6 million to 29.8 million." In other words, we don't really have a clue. Fish farms, climate change, habitat destruction, drift net fishing, seals, over-fishing, warming temperatures, First Nations catches on the rivers have all been fingered as the cause of declining stocks.

Dr. Brian Riddell, CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, thinks we should be monitoring Georgia Strait bio-systems for answers. "The only thing that could cause these swings is in the Strait of Georgia," he says. "The first 6-8 weeks are critical, when the juveniles are going out to sea." Sockeye spend the first year of their four-year life cycle in fresh water before heading out to the open ocean.

While we may not know what causes particular fisheries to collapse and return, the bigger, darker planetary picture is quite clear: We're down to catching the last 10 percent of wild fish left on our planet. We know that 90 percent of the all the large fish and sea mammals that could feed us are gone, not just in some places, but all over the world.

That includes tuna, swordfish, sharks, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder. We also know that if present rates of overfishing continue, all the stocks we fish will have collapsed by the middle of this century — within 40 years. That hasn't changed with one good run of Fraser River sockeye.

The one part of the fishing mystery we do control is how much we take for human use. "Overfishing is the biggest problem our oceans face," says John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium. "Quite simply, our marine species cannot reproduce fast enough to keep up with the hunt."

Another reliable expectation is that if we stop fishing in a particular area, fish will multiply. The Vancouver Aquarium is demonstrating this with its reintroduction of black rockfish near Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver. They were fished to extinction in local waters in the 1990s. Today, transplanted baby black rockfish from the west coast of Vancouver Island have established what the Aquarium thinks is a breeding population. And at the south edge of downtown, herring roe have been spotted for the first time in decades — on the newly-created island by the Athlete's Village site in False Creek.

The words "marine protected area” actually crossed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's lips in late August, in reference to the Tarium Niryutait Marine Protected Area at the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the Beaufort Sea, home to one of the world's largest summer populations of belugas. Unfortunately, a portion of this "conservation area" has been set aside for oil and gas drilling, but it's a start.

Let's look on this sockeye bonanza as a tantalizing reminder of what our wild salmon fishery could be again. The Cohen commission should keep inquiring. One good catch in a century doesn't make an industry.


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