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Fraser River sockeye run may be a no-go for local fishermen

Reef net fisher Pete Granger heads out to his reef net barge off Lummi Island on Aug. 22, 2014. Granger and other fishermen may not get a chance to fish the Fraser River sockeye salmon run this year because of low counts on the returning stock.
Reef net fisher Pete Granger heads out to his reef net barge off Lummi Island on Aug. 22, 2014. Granger and other fishermen may not get a chance to fish the Fraser River sockeye salmon run this year because of low counts on the returning stock. Bellingham Herald file

With fish counts remaining extremely low, it’s looking less likely that local commercial and tribal fishermen will get a chance to catch Fraser River sockeye salmon this summer.

Fishermen in Canada and the U.S. have been waiting for the green light from the Pacific Salmon Commission to begin fishing for sockeye that are returning to the Fraser River in lower British Columbia. In its most recent assessment on Friday, Aug. 5, the sockeye run remains below expectations and the river remains warmer than normal, both factors in not opening the run.

It’s not a surprising result, but still disappointing to fishermen like Pete Granger, who works for Lummi Island Wild. This is a crucial part of the run and if the numbers don’t improve in the next couple of weeks, the season will be lost, he said.

“We are all geared up and ready,” Granger said. “We don’t know what the problem is, but we know that they aren’t coming back.”

The concern of not spotting the fish is a sentiment also echoed by John Field, executive secretary for the Pacific Salmon Commission. The preseason prediction estimated about 840,000 sockeye salmon would arrive at the Fraser River by Saturday, Aug. 6. By Friday, Aug. 5, the commission could only account for around 450,000 fish.

A closure of the local sockeye run won’t have a huge impact on most of the Bellingham commercial fleet, Granger said – officials predicted a smaller run this season and many of the fishermen planned to fish in Alaska longer this year, Granger said.

Consumers are unlikely to see many locally caught sockeye in stores, but there will still be plenty from Alaska.

The fishing limits would impact tribal fishermen and the local commercial boats that decided to stick around here this summer. Elden Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Natural Resources and Fisheries Commission, is hopeful tribal members can still get some fishing done this year, but a lot of factors are working against them.

Earlier this season, the Lummi community geared up to get some fish for ceremonial uses and caught only 19. Along with ceremonial uses and feeding the community, sockeye fish also help pay for supplies like crab pots and equipment for other fishing.

“Unfortunately this is happening more often in recent years,” Hillaire said, referring to the fishing limits.

As much as it is an economic benefit, we have to protect this run for future generations.

Elden Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Natural Resources and Fisheries Commission

Field said it’s not precisely clear why the run is so meager this season, though some clues have emerged:

▪  A phenomenon nicknamed the “warm blob” – an unusually warm patch of water – was parked off the west coast of Vancouver Island in late 2014 and 2015. Sockeye salmon prefer cooler temperatures, so the warm blob may have disrupted the metabolism of the fish as well as the run, Field said.

▪  The salmon run goes in a four-year cycle, with this one falling in what’s traditionally been the smallest run.

▪  Large numbers of fish may simply not be near the detection stations at this point.

With the Fraser River about 1 degree Celsius warmer than the average for this time of year, officials could decide to allow more fish to go up the river because warmer water means less will be able to survive the journey, Hillaire said.

While the limited run is clearly frustrating fishermen this summer, Field said he is proud that the treaty is working as it should to keep the stock healthy for future years.

Hillaire agreed.

“As much as it is an economic benefit, we have to protect this run for future generations,” he said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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