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Fraser River sockeye run still avoiding U.S. waters, frustrating Whatcom County fishermen

Reef net fisher Pete Granger throws a sockeye salmon into a holding pen on his fishing barge off Lummi Island Friday Aug. 22, 2014. American fishers are catching fewer sockeye so far this season because most of the fish are heading north into Canadian waters.
Reef net fisher Pete Granger throws a sockeye salmon into a holding pen on his fishing barge off Lummi Island Friday Aug. 22, 2014. American fishers are catching fewer sockeye so far this season because most of the fish are heading north into Canadian waters. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

With the sockeye salmon run into the Fraser River nearly complete, the fortunes of local U.S. commercial fishermen haven’t improved much.

As of Thursday, Sept. 11, the number of sockeye caught in Canadian waters for the Fraser River run is estimated to be 7,783,800, compared to 438,200 in U.S. waters, according to data from the Pacific Salmon Commission. The run size to date is 20.7 million fish, right around the preseason forecast.

In recent years about 50 percent of the sockeye run went south through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, putting the fish in U.S. waters. This season nearly the entire run has gone around the north part of Vancouver Island through Johnstone Strait into Canadian waters.

For the reefnet fishermen at the Lummi Island Wild Co-op, the season is over. Fisherman Pete Granger said about four reefnet boats, which were stationed off Lummi Island awaiting the fish, have been put away for the winter.

“It was just frustrating to be out there 10 hours for 10 fish,” said his wife, Debbie Granger.

The U.S. fleet in local waters had one more chance over the weekend to catch some sockeye right along the border near Point Roberts, Pete Granger said. Before heading up the Fraser River, the fish sometimes will mill around the mouth of the river a few days before heading upstream. With so many fish waiting to head into the river, some may cross over to U.S. waters.

The lack of sockeye is also hurting local fish processing facilities. Bellingham Cold Storage had planned a public evening tour on Monday, Sept. 15, to show a fishing boat unloading the day’s catch and processing the fish, but it was canceled because of the lack of fish being caught in U.S. waters.

Several factors could be behind why most of the sockeye went around the north part of Vancouver Island this season, but researchers are focusing on an unusually warm area of ocean water that spans the Gulf of Alaska into this area. The water is about 3 degrees Celsius warmer than normal, pushing the sockeye north in search of cooler water nutrients. According to a recent article posted on NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s website, an exception to the warmth is a narrow strip of cold water along the Pacific Northwest coast.

The warm spot in the ocean doesn’t match recognized patterns in ocean conditions, according to the NOAA article. If the warm water conditions remain in place, that could adversely impact cold water fish reproduction, including the sockeye salmon, but provide better conditions for warm-water species like sardines and tuna.

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