It's one of the worst years in history for salmon, and we're still killing them
By Stephen Hume, Vancouver SunOctober 14, 2009
Call it British Columbia's Silent Fall. Some of the most prolific spawning grounds on the Fraser River are showing minuscule returns from record brood stocks four years earlier.
At some sites, almost no fish were reported in waters that should be seething with darting, crimson-sided sockeye salmon vying by the millions to lay and fertilize 10 billion eggs.
Eagles, bears, trout, aquatic insects and plants that feed on decaying salmon may face a nutrient desert on some parts of the upper Fraser and its tributaries.
When I checked on Monday, fisheries counts in the week ending Sept. 23 reported no sockeye observed on the west arm of Quesnel Lake, a vast spawning area. On Quesnel Lake's east arm, 1,468 live sockeye were counted in the seven days to Sept. 29.
On the Quesnel system's North Lake, 3,693 live spawners were counted in the week to Sept. 28. These figures represent snapshots of salmon runs, not cumulative totals. Fish counts are dynamic and change from week to week, so stock analysts can't calculate actual escapements until well after the season ends. Still, these numbers look pretty dismal as almost eight million fewer salmon than expected return, many of them representing stocks in the lower Fraser.
With runs to the huge Quesnel system now considered complete, the reported live count at Bill Miner Creek for the week ending Sept. 29 was zero. Bouldery Creek, zero. Devoe Creek, zero. Long Creek, zero. Roaring River, zero. Abbot Creek, zero. Hazeltine Creek, zero. Spusks Creek, zero. Tasse Creek, zero. Whiffle Creek, zero. Junction Creek, four. Isaiah Creek, 14. Watt Creek, 42. Lynx Creek, 61. Tellingly, the count of salmon carcasses in these particular creeks totalled only 17.
The Pacific salmon stock outlook for 2009 forecast even odds for a return of around 3.5 million sockeye for the Quesnel system spawning areas.
In the Shuswap Lake system, the Adams River, a heavily promoted provincial tourist attraction during the spawning season, only 1,360 fish were counted in the river in the week ending Sept. 28 although more arrived during this past week but had yet to be tabulated by my deadline Tuesday.
On the Nechako River system, which includes Francois Lake, Ormonde Creek, Nithi Creek and Nadina River, no live spawners were observed during weeks from early September through early October, although 71 carcasses were counted on the Nadina.
Four years ago, the brood year escapement to the Nechako system was the highest on record for this particular cycle -- 600 per cent greater than the average from 1981-2001. This fall, 374,000 fish were forecast to return.
On the Horsefly River, the source of another vast sockeye stock, the live count was 1,623 fish for the week ending Oct. 4.
And yet, while one of the poorest sockeye returns to the Fraser in fisheries history was unfolding, the killing of sockeye was still sanctioned.
Figures posted to the website of the Pacific Salmon Commission, the joint Canada-U.S. agency that oversees Fraser sockeye, confirm that even as forecasts for sockeye returns were collapsing, non-commercial fisheries killed at least 102,740 of the already diminished stock returning.
Sports anglers fishing for other species were required to release any sockeye caught, but they still hooked 18,855 and studies show that from five to 15 per cent, possibly more, die from stress and injuries after being released. Particularly vulnerable are fish accidentally snagged by anglers. Close to 3,000 were likely killed by recreational anglers.
Another 31,870 sockeye were killed in two test fisheries used to determine run size and timing. First nations killed 10,020 in Johnston Strait and then killed 54,680 more in the Fraser, exercising their right to fish for cultural, ceremonial and subsistence purposes. First nations in the U.S. killed 4,300. Charter boats killed 1,865.
These are only the reported mortalities. How many more sockeye were accidentally killed as incidental bycatch in gillnet and seine fisheries for other species? Did some as yet unknown event in the lower Fraser cause a mass mortality of out-migrating smolts or, despite loud and early denials from industry and its apologists, did fish farms play some undetermined role in a mortality event for migrating juveniles?
One thing seems clear. We need answers. We need them email@example.com
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