In a development that has left local fishermen scratching their heads, it appears an unusually warm section of ocean water is helping send nearly the entire sockeye salmon run into Canadian fishing waters this season.
According to data from the Pacific Salmon Commission through Tuesday, Aug. 19, in recent weeks about 99 percent of the sockeye salmon has gone through the Johnstone Strait around the northern part of Vancouver Island into Canadian waters.
That's made a big difference in who is catching the fish: Nearly 2.9 million sockeye salmon have been caught in Canadian waters, while the U.S. fishermen had caught around 98,000 through Aug. 19.
During a typical sockeye salmon run, about 50 percent of the run goes around the south end of Vancouver Island through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, putting them in U.S. waters.
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This year's diversion rate is unusual. If it stays around this level, it would be the highest diversion rate on record, with data dating back to 1953, said Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission.
That would be troubling news not only for the fishermen but for the Bellingham fish processing facilities, said Doug Thomas, president of Bellingham Cold Storage. BCS and other Bellingham processing plants rely mostly on the U.S. fish catch, although they sometimes take in truckloads of fish from Canada.
"They (the fishermen) are expecting better numbers this week, but we are anticipating lower numbers overall here at BCS," Thomas said.
The sockeye salmon run is expected to continue for several more weeks, so U.S. fishermen like Pete Granger are hoping to salvage what they can this season. Granger is a reefnet fisher who is operating his boat near Lummi Island. He has been catching fish for the Lummi Island Wild Co-op for the past eight years.
"It could be one of the worst seasons we've had in a long time," Granger said. He remains hopeful, however, that some of the season can be salvaged. The fishing numbers in U.S. waters started to improve at the end of last week, with several weeks left in the season.
WHY DID THE SALMON HEAD NORTH?
Several factors could be behind why sockeye salmon decided to head for the Johnstone Strait this summer, but researchers are looking closely at an area of ocean water off the coast that is about 3 degrees Celsius warmer than normal. Nick Bond, a research scientist for the University of Washington, refers to this area as a "warm blob" that developed last winter as the Pacific Northwest went through a period of unusually quiet weather. Residents may recall last winter when this area had stretches of cool, windless and foggy days.
The calm weather meant the ocean didn't do its usual churning of deeper, colder water up to the surface. With this pattern continuing into summer, the warm area of the ocean has persisted. Sockeye salmon prefer cooler water, which may be why most of the run went north around Vancouver Island.
Bond believes the development of the warm blob is not a direct result of global warming but more of a fluke. Looking back at past data, there has been the occasional season when a cold area has developed off the coast, sending the sockeye salmon south of Vancouver Island into U.S. waters.
This season's event is giving scientists a chance to learn what impact a warmer ocean would have on this area's ecosystem, giving them more information to make better predictions.
Given the current weather models, Bond said the warm blob could be around for a while, possibly well into 2015. There's also the potential of El Nino developing later this year, bringing warm water to this area. If that's the case, it could be disruptive for next year's pink salmon run as well.
SOME HOPE FOR LATE-SEASON RALLY
It is particularly frustrating this year because all commercial fishermen were gearing up for what was expected to be a record run. This run consists of the offspring from the 2010 run, which was one of the largest ever recorded. The forecast run for this year is around 22.8 million fish.
If that many fish do arrive outside the mouth of the Fraser River in British Columbia, it could mean an opportunity for U.S. fishermen. The fish could pile up around the Fraser River before heading upstream; while waiting to enter the river, some could spill over into U.S. waters near Point Roberts. It could be costly to guess wrong, however, by fueling up and heading out, looking for fish. Last week some fishers were waiting to hear if it was happening before making the trip, including Ante Ivcevic, who has the Bellingham-based boat Winnie.
"It is what it is, but we remain hopeful," he said. "We were expecting a lot of fish, so it's been frustrating so far."
Since Granger's reefnet boat is stationary, he will continue to fish around Lummi Island and hope for the best. His crew will be able to ride out this season if things don't pick up, but he is concerned about next year's pink salmon run. The typical diversion rate for the pink salmon to the north and south of Vancouver Island is around 50 percent, like the sockeye.
"Maybe this year is an anomaly," Granger said, "but we just won't know until the run begins next year."