With files from Shannon Lough, The Northern View
The fishing season had a grim opening on the Skeena River.
While the season opened earlier than in recent years, fisheries are having a poor harvest in river waters.
On July 8-9 there were 230 boats out fishing but only 7,000 fish were caught, reported the northern representative for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, Joy Thorkelson.
The Skeena Tyee test fishery, which collections data for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, also reported higher than average levels of fish had reached spawning grounds past the fisheries during that time.
Some areas of the Skeena are tracking well, but people have different theories about why so many fish bypassed those fishermen.
“We don’t know if it was deep or the fishermen weren’t fishing the right areas. We don’t know what happened. They should have caught way more than they did,” said Thorkelson.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said there are many factors at play including changing water levels, turbidity and temperature, predator abundance and migrations patterns.
But despite high wild sockeye returns forecast early in the season, Colin Masson, northcoast area director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said some of the low catches may be relative to the expectations fisheries had.
“There was some optimism with our initial estimates for the Skeena, but that just didn’t pan out,” he explained. “Earlier in the season we thought we were looking at a more significant return, but we’ve had to downgrade that estimate.
“It’s not a great year for the Skeena.”
The estimated number of sockeye salmon returning to the river this year reached as high as two million, but as the run progressed, it’s closer to the preseason estimate at 1.26 million, explained Masson.
Current estimates are just above the 1.1 million threshold required to allow commercial fisheries to operate.
“We [just had] two sockeye openings today with relatively low catches and it remains uncertain if there will be another opening,” Masson noted.
However, the run is at par with the numbers recorded last year and First Nation food fisheries remain active on the river.
Chinook salmon have also had some success this year with recreational catches slightly above average, Masson said.
There were early commercial openings for chinook this year, but they yielded a low harvest.
With returns on the Nass River turning out exceptionally poor for sockeye and much stronger for chinook, Masson explained that neither points to a trend.
“There’s been so much change going on in the ocean conditions in the last few years that it’s increased the uncertainty of what’s actually going on,” he said. “It’s a mixed bag.”
He said that what is described as a warm blob in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of B.C. and Alaska is thought to have affected fish survival in the past couple of years.
“You’ve probably heard of the warm blob that’s been in the north, the conclusion is that’s bound to be a factor.
“It’s really an unknown and we’re starting to see mixed results here on the north coast . . . Nass sockeye are down, the Skeena sockeye are about what we expected, but there are a few surprises as well. Smith Inlet, where we didn’t anticipate a commercial opportunity, has had quite a successful return,” Masson said.
“Is it climate change? Is it a cyclical event? These are good questions,” he noted.
Though some fisheries staff are pointing to cooling ocean temperatures in 2016 leading to better returns when those juvenile fish move up-river to spawn in 2018, Masson is not yet convinced that is the case.
“It appeared as if that blob was dissipating and certainly not as prevalent as it had been and yet there is still some indication that there is some warming occurring. Perhaps it’s staying deeper down.
“There’s increased uncertainly of what’s actually going on,” he said.
“What we’re looking at is not one single trend that we can point to for the west coast of Canada.”
However, the warm ocean temperatures juvenile salmon faced when entering the waters in 2015 mean some fisheries officials are, for now, expecting low returns again in 2017.