Fraser sockeye coming home like gangbusters

UPDATE; Tuesday, Sept. 14

This will be my last update on this year’s Fraser River sockeye run, as the run has begun to tail off and increases in the estimates have been slight the past two weeks.

Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 28 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, 3.8 million; summer-run, 5.2 million; and late-run 25.4 million. The late-run is now more than three times higher than the preseason prediction, and the total runsize estimate now stands at 34.5 million.

Please read the rest of this blog entry for how this situation developed.
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UPDATE; Wednesday, Sept. 1

Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 37 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, unchanged at 3.7 million; summer-run, unchanged at 4.8 million; and late-run Shuswap/Weaver, 24 million, up from 20 million.

The entire Fraser River run is now estimated at 34 million, the highest run size since 1913, when experts estimated the run to total about 39 million. The late-run Shuswap/Weaver sockeye, which are in their dominant year, are now three times the preseason estimate.
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UPDATE; Friday, Aug. 27

Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 198 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, 3.7 million, up from 3.2 million; summer-run, 4.8 million, up from 4.5 million; and late-run, 21.4 million, up from 17.2 million.

The entire Fraser River run is now estimated at 30 million, the highest run size since 1913, when experts estimated the run to total about 39 million.
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UPDATE: Thursday, Aug. 26

Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 198 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, 3.2 million, up from 2.9 million; summer-run, 4.5 million, up from 4.0 million; and late-run, 17.2 million, up from 12.1 million.

The total run of Fraser River sockeye is now predicted to be 25 million fish, which compares to 1.9 million total for last year. This year’s run is the largest since 1913, according to the news release.

By the way, Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton does a nice job reporting on the personal and economic effects of the big sockeye run.
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UPDATE: Friday, Aug. 20

The Fraser River Panel today released new runsize estimates for sockeye. See news release (PDF 198 kb). The latest numbers have increased from 2.6 million to 2.9 million for early-summer-run sockeye; from 3.3 million to 4.0 million for summer-run; and from 8 million to 12.1 million for late-run. We are now seeing predictions that far exceed preseason estimates.
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When it comes to Fraser River sockeye, a single year can make all the difference in the world.

Lummi tribal fishermen use a purse seine to catch Fraser River sockeye salmon in the San Juan Islands.
Photo courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Last year at this time, I commented in Water Ways about the mystery of the missing Fraser River sockeye and the economic disaster wrought by the abysmally poor runs. Preseason forecasts of 10 million sockeye washed out with a return around 1.9 million.

This year, all kinds of fishermen seem overwhelmed with excitement as large sockeye runs return to the Fraser, the longest river in British Columbia.

Kelly Sinoski, a reporter for the Vancouver Sun, described how fishermen were laughing with joy. She quoted Julius Boudreau, a commercial fisherman in Port McNeill:

“It’s out of the ordinary. The catches have been way more than the quota. It’s crazy. We’re seeing thousands and thousands of fish.”

I placed a call to Tim Tynan of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who works with the Pacific Salmon Commission as the U.S. representative on the Fraser Panel. He reminded me that we are seeing the Adams-dominant cycle this year, a typically strong return that comes around every four years and is associated with Adams River and Lake Shuswap, which is located in the middle of the Fraser River watershed near Kamloops.

Sockeye live by a four-year life cycle, and typically one year is more dominant than the others. The Fraser is a mixed bag of many populations, and managers must sort out which runs are dominant each year for an overall run size estimate.

For the last three years, some mysterious factor has been killing Fraser River sockeye. A special task force concluded last fall that the sockeye returning in 2009 experienced unusually high mortality as the fish first entered saltwater in 2007.

As a result of the ongoing mystery, Tynan said managers for the U.S. and Canada were a little “gun shy” about predicting a large or even normally sized run and decided to take a more conservative approach. But test fisheries have been showing phenomenal returns this year, and fishing has been opened up on both sides of the border to harvest sockeye that are surplus to spawning escapement needs.

In meetings throughout the summer — including one yesterday — managers have continued to increase their estimates of returns as new data becomes available. Early-summer-run sockeye, originally estimated at 783,000, have now reached an estimate of 2.6 million. Summer-run, originally estimated at 2.6 million, has been adjusted to 3.3 million. Late-run sockeye, forecast at 8 million, have not been adjusted, but the numbers are being watched carefully, according to yesterday’s regulatory announcement (PDF 43 kb).

“Recent, very large test fishery catches in the marine migration areas to the Fraser River suggest that the late-run abundance is well above the forecast level,” Tim wrote me in an e-mail.*

See the original July 9 news release (PDF 198 kb) for initial forecasts and anticipated abundance-timing curves. Check the Fraser River Panel’s web page for all news releases and regulatory announcements.

Like other sockeye fishermen, tribal harvesters in the U.S. are happy to be on the water after being shut out of fishing for three years two of the last three years because of low sockeye numbers.

Lorraine Loomis, Swinomish fisheries manager and tribal representative to the Pacific Salmon Commission, said in a news release:

“It’s wonderful to finally have a sockeye harvest again. This fishery helps our fishermen and feeds our tribal communities that have had to go without sockeye for too long.”

Tribes with a treaty right to fish for Fraser River sockeye in U.S. waters are Lummi, Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Nooksack, Makah, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Suquamish, Swinomish and Tulalip.

Suquamish tribal fishermen use a purse seine to catch Fraser River sockeye in the San Juans.
Photo courtesy of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

11 thoughts on “Fraser sockeye coming home like gangbusters

  1. UPDATE: Friday, Aug. 20

    The Fraser River Panel today released new runsize estimates for sockeye. See news release (PDF 198 kb). The latest numbers have increased from 2.6 million to 2.9 million for early-summer-run sockeye; from 3.3 million to 4.0 million for summer-run; and from 8 million to 12.1 million for late-run. We are now seeing predictions that far exceed preseason estimates.

  2. UPDATE: Thursday, Aug. 26

    Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 198 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, 3.2 million, up from 2.9 million; summer-run, 4.5 million, up from 4.0 million; and late-run, 17.2 million, up from 12.1 million.

    The total run of Fraser River sockeye is now predicted to be 25 million fish, which compares to 1.9 million total for last year. This year’s run is the largest since 1913, according to the news release.

    By the way, Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton does a nice job reporting on the personal and economic effects of the big sockeye run.

  3. I’ll be interested to see, as the age structure of this year’s run is determined, how many of the fish returning this year should have been part of last year’s “missing” return.

    This event also illustrates how the models and techniques managers have relied on for decades for predicting returns have become extremely sketchy over the last 10 yrs. or so.

  4. How can this be? I thought Puget Sound and the Salish Sea were dying, or troubled, or somehow worthy of “protection.” This shatters my eco-religious beliefs to the bone.

    Please tell me the salmon and the evil fisherpersons are riddled with some sort of hideous toxins. Something. Give me hope that the end of the world is near.

  5. Again I ask, how do the scientists and the highly-paid PSP action team members explain this? What’s gone wrong with their dire pronouncements? Are these fish dying, deformed, riddled with toxins? Or, are they perfectly healthy and safe to eat?

  6. Stone,

    Here’s the simple answer: These fish came out of the Fraser River in Canada. They went out to the ocean. Then they came back to the Fraser River in Canada. They never even came into Puget Sound.

  7. Fish managers typically use several methods to predict returns, each with considerable variability or error. Over the last decade or so, these methods have been much more variable making it very difficult to accurately predict returns. There are examples of these models failing (plus/minus) up and down the west coast. One element that many managers are troubled by is accounting for what’s happening in the ocean over the 2-4 years these fish are there.

    For example, last year’s missing Fraser fish may have enter an ocean where there their feeding areas were bare, while this year’s fish found lots of food there. The ocean is a patchy place where lots of factors can contribute to food abundance – temp., nutrients, wind and currents, etc.

    Another factor that might have contributed to the variability is what animals are exposed to as they swim out to sea. Did water pollution parasites, predators (jumbo squid were around off the coast last year but not this year) or disease weaken the fish so that they are less able to survive through their whole lives to return and spawn?

    It is unlikely there will ever be a smoking gun here because it is probably many factors. Chris, you posted a good description of how orcas are effected by many factors in a cumulative way. Such is probably the case with Fraser sockeye.

    To speculate that one or more programs are useless or ineffective without more knowledge at this point is premature. Remember the PSP has only been around for ~ one generation of salmon.

  8. Thanks, Geembo. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

    Anadromous fish need healthy conditions in the stream where their lives begin as well as healthy conditions in the ocean. As you say, researchers are telling us that the factors for dramatic shifts for Fraser River sockeye populations seem to be occurring as the fish go out to sea.

    The primary role of the Puget Sound Partnership is to protect and restore the inland waterways for all species, including fish.

  9. UPDATE; Wednesday, Sept. 1

    Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 37 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, unchanged at 3.7 million; summer-run, unchanged at 4.8 million; and late-run Shuswap/Weaver, 24 million, up from 20 million.

    The entire Fraser River run is now estimated at 34 million, the highest run size since 1913, when experts estimated the run to total about 39 million. The late-run Shuswap/Weaver sockeye, which are in their dominant year, are now three times the preseason estimate.

  10. UPDATE; Tuesday, Sept. 14

    This will be my last update on this year’s Fraser River sockeye run, as the run has begun to tail off and increases in the estimates have been slight the past two weeks.

    Latest numbers from the Fraser River Panel (PDF 28 kb): Early-summer-run sockeye, 3.8 million; summer-run, 5.2 million; and late-run 25.4 million. The late-run is now more than three times higher than the preseason prediction, and the total runsize estimate now stands at 34.5 million.

    Please read the rest of this blog entry for how this situation developed.

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