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Far fewer Fraser sockeye predicted this summer

A gillnetter crew on the Fraser River clean some of their sockeye salmon catch during the historic 2010 run. - Evan Seal / The Leader
A gillnetter crew on the Fraser River clean some of their sockeye salmon catch during the historic 2010 run.
— image credit: Evan Seal / The Leader

Last year's massive run of roughly 30 million sockeye salmon that filled freezers and kept barbecues sizzling won't likely be repeated this summer.

Instead, officials at the Pacific Salmon Commission are forecasting a much lower return of between three and five million sockeye to the Fraser River for 2011.

That means relatively little, if any, sockeye fishing for commercial fishermen and sports anglers, and possibly even First Nations, who get first priority subject only to conservation needs.

"Expectations are much lower," said Mike Lapointe, the commission's chief biologist.

He predicts fishing will be heavily restricted to protect threatened stocks, particularly early running sockeye bound for Stuart Lake and late running fish that end up in Cultus Lake.

"It will be nothing in the way of what we had last year," Lapointe said. "I think people are pretty realistic."

Last year included the huge run of sockeye that return to the Fraser's Adams River tributary northeast of Kamloops once every four years.

Some scientists think the already big run was further intensified because ash from an Alaskan volcano may have fallen at just the right time to fertilize ocean water and increase the food supply for juvenile sockeye from the Fraser.

Lapointe doubts the volcano theory, instead believing the wide variations possible in salmon returns can account for the difference.

Over the long term, about five adult Fraser sockeye tend to return for every one that spawned four years earlier.

This year's return was spawned by roughly 900,000 adults four years ago.

But that's a far cry from the 4.5 million spawners in 2006 that produced 2010's huge run.

Even so, the forecast models indicate this year's run could vary anywhere from one million to 15 million fish, with the median of around four million most probable.

The next three seasons are all expected to be similar until the Adams-bolstered run spawned in 2010 returns in 2014.

"The next three years in particular are coming off low runs," Lapointe said. "2007, 2008 and 2009 were very low returns with fairly low numbers of spawners."

Those dismal runs prompted the federal government to appoint the Cohen Commission now probing the decline of Fraser River sockeye.

While the official count of sockeye last year remains 34.5 million, Lapointe confirms that is still expected to be revised down to around 30 million.

It will still stand as the biggest in almost a century, since an estimated 39 million returned in 1913, before the Hell's Gate rock slide disrupted salmon for decades.

One silver lining for 2011 is that fishery managers expect a very large number of pink salmon, which come back every two years.

More than a billion pink fry came out of the Fraser and about 17.5 million of them are expected to return late this summer.

"That's by far the largest out-migration we've seen," Lapointe said. "So there's potential for a much larger pink salmon migration."

Pinks aren't as lucrative or desired as sockeye, but Lapointe expects they will be heavily fished anyway.

"I think it's the pinks that are going to provide the bulk of the harvest for folks this year."

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