Mike Armstrong

Fraser sockeye shun U.S. waters, fill B.C. nets

Warm water likely steered many more salmon to Canadian boats

A quirk of nature has handed B.C. commercial fishermen a huge catch of sockeye salmon this summer, while leaving their American counterparts almost empty handed.

Commercial fishing is winding down and the tally of the totes so far shows U.S. fishermen out of Washington State have caught barely 440,000 sockeye, a mere five per cent of the total Fraser-bound catch as of Friday.

By comparison, Canadian seiners, gillnetters and trollers, as well as First Nations and sports anglers, have caught a combined 7.9 million sockeye.

Americans had been allocated 1.8 million but haven’t come close to that quota because nearly all the Fraser sockeye have stayed out of U.S. waters by running down the east side of Vancouver Island via Johnstone Strait.

It’s not that the salmon have been patriotic about sticking to the all-Canadian migration route.

Pacific Salmon Commission chief biologist Mike Lapointe says warm ocean temperatures likely mean Fraser sockeye ranged further into the Gulf of Alaska and then, on their homeward migration, made landfall further north than usual up the B.C. coast.

A normal year sees Fraser sockeye flow more evenly around Vancouver Island, with significant numbers going down the west side where Americans can fish in Juan de Fuca Strait.

But since early August more than 98 per cent have taken Johnstone Strait.

“It’s very unusual,” Lapointe said, adding it’s been hard on American fishermen because Fraser sockeye “just aren’t swimming through their waters.”

The closest U.S. boats can get to the Canadian fishing frenzy is the U.S. water off Point Roberts, where BC Ferries passengers near Tsawwassen have been able to spot American boats fishing steadily.

Lapointe said unusual Fraser sockeye catches in southeast Alaska and off Haida Gwaii have been strong evidence of a more northerly landfall this year, with many more fish funnelled into Johnstone Strait.

The total Fraser sockeye run size is estimated at 20.7 million this year – very close to the mid-range pre-season estimate.

Lapointe said dangerously warm river temperatures have cooled, returning sockeye appear to be in good shape and plenty of fish are reaching the spawning grounds – all factors that bode well for a good run in 2018.

He said an unusual number of returning sockeye have been caught with either lamprey eels sucking on them or evidence of lamprey marks, but that doesn’t seem to have killed many.

Lampreys can survive in fresh water so “they can latch onto a sockeye in Georgia Strait and hang onto it and ride it right up the river.”

Unlike some recent years when the fleet was sidelined because the run was too small to fish, this year’s sockeye return – though short of a record – gave all groups of fishermen repeated openings.

“This is the biggest run of the four-year cycle,” Lapointe said. “In many ways it’s the one-in-four year opportunity these guys get.”

Some commercial sockeye fishing was allowed last year, when about four million salmon returned to the Fraser, after a shutdown in 2012.

Fishery managers are hopeful Fraser sockeye are gradually rebuilding since the disastrous 2009 run when just 1.6 million sockeye returned, triggering the Cohen Inquiry.

Lapointe said most fishing could be halted by next week to protect weaker coho salmon stocks.

One stock that returned weaker than was hoped was the Cultus Lake sockeye, where fewer than 300 fish have come back. “That’s definitely a concern,” Lapointe said.

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