Mystery surrounds millions of missing Fraser sockeye

If you haven’t heard, the famous Fraser River sockeye run in southern British Columbia is turning out to be a disaster this year.

The low run has implications for all kinds of fishermen on both sides of the border.

I asked Tim Tynan of the National Marine Fisheries Service about this. It truly is bad, said Tim, who works with the Pacific Salmon Commission as the U.S. representative on the Fraser Panel. That international panel manages the U.S. and Canadian fisheries for sockeye and pink salmon.

Conditions were looking good early in the year, when the PSC staff forecast 10.5 million sockeye for the entire Fraser River run. Of that, about 8.7 million was expected to come from the “summer run.”

Based on current conditions, the estimate last week was reduced to only 600,000 for the summer run, which has put fisheries on hold.

It is quite a mystery why this has happened. Numbers were looking very good up until the young smolts took off into ocean waters in the spring and summer of 2007. After that, something happened, because the expected number of adults resulting from those smolts has yet to show up. Check out the latest PSC press release.

According to Tim, there remains a slim hope that some of these missing fish will still show up, since a large number of their parents came into the river two to three weeks late during the summer of 2005. But it takes a cockeyed optimist to believe that returns yet to come will turn around the disastrous year we are having.

From recent news reports:

“There’s going to be no fishery unless there’s a miracle, unless they’re real, real late.” — Merle Jefferson, natural resources director for Lummi Nation, in a story by John Stark of the Bellingham Herald.

“You know what, we’ve made Mother Nature sick and that sickness is manifesting itself in these poor returns of salmon. It’s a crisis.” — Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the B.C. First Nations Fisheries Council, in a story by Mark Hume of the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Look for problems affecting juvenile sockeye in the Strait of Georgia, where the young fish spend the early, critical part of their lives. “The place to start looking is close to home.” — Brian Riddell, executive director of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, in a story by Scott Simpson of the Vancouver Sun

“The elders have been telling me for a long time that over-fishing while the sockeye are at sea and are mixed in with other species being caught is gradually extracting the genetically stronger fish among the sockeye from the returning runs, and this has been happening for the past 100 years.” — Sto:lo fisheries adviser Ernie Crey in a column by Brian Lewis in The Province

“Migration conditions for sockeye entering the Fraser River have improved over the past week. On August 10 the Fraser River water temperature at Qualark Creek was 18.8 degrees C, which is 1.1 degrees C higher than average for this date. Water temperatures in this range may stress migrating sockeye and slow their upstream migration.” — August 11 press release from the Pacific Salmon Commission (PDF 8 kb).

“I looked at about 350 of this generation of Fraser sockeye when they went to sea in 2007 and they had up to 28 sea lice [each]. The sea lice were all young lice, which means they got them in the vicinity of where we were sampling, which was near the fish farms in the Discovery Islands. If they got sea lice from the farms, they were also exposed to whatever other pathogens were happening on the fish farms.” — Researcher and author Alexandra Morton in an e-mail to Mark Hume of the Toronto Globe and Mail.

“Blaming salmon farming operations for declining wild stocks may be convenient but it is unfounded… Natural causes such as warm ocean conditions leave juvenile sockeye vulnerable in their early life cycle. As well, reputable researchers now understand that Pacific salmon are resistant to damage from sea lice except in their extreme infancy when first leaving their natal rivers. In the case of Fraser River Sockeye, since the closest salmon farm is over 110 km away from the Fraser River’s mouth, there is no opportunity for out migrating Fraser River salmon fry to come in contact with farmed salmon during their critical early life stages and; therefore, no chance for the alleged sea louse transmission to occur.” — British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association in a statement on its Web site.

2 thoughts on “Mystery surrounds millions of missing Fraser sockeye

  1. It looks like Alexandra Morton has the scientific evidence, and the industry spokesperson has his summary opinion that the farms are too far from the river’s mouth to infect the sockeye.

    I’ll go with the science. Alexandra writes:

    “Given both the importance of the Fraser sockeye to the BC economy, ecology and First Nations; and the analysis that DFO political interference with science may have allowed the east coast cod to collapse, it is reasonable to ask what science did Sprout and Rosenburger use to inform the public that fish farms are not responsible for this sockeye collapse?

    “Two of your highest ranking employees involved with this fishery have publicly exonerated the fish farmers, an industry associated with catastrophic salmon collapse worldwide (Ford and Myers 2008) and here in BC (Krkosek et al 2007).

    “The most recent past catastrophic BC wild salmon collapse was in 2002 when 99% of the Broughton pink salmon failed to return. The Pink Salmon Action Plan ( temporarily removed farm salmon from the Broughton pink salmon migration route and the next generation of pink salmon returned at the highest survivorship ever recorded for the species (Beamish et al 2006). That management decision was reversed and the stock collapsed again.

    “Dr. Brian Riddell of the Pacific Salmon Foundation suggests that answers to the fate of these sockeye may lie in what happened to them right after they left the Fraser River, before they reached the open ocean. I and others did examine this run of sockeye shortly after they left the Fraser River. We were the last scientists to see these fish before they disappeared, and they had up to 28 sea lice on them as they passed the salmon farms off Campbell River.

    “Before you reply that DFO’s Dr. Simon Jones says young salmon are highly resistant to lice, please review his publications. I do not find the data in his studies to support this claim once the lice are attached to the fish. Many international scientific papers run contrary to Dr. Jones’ assertions.

    “I cannot tell you that fish farms definitely killed all 11 million missing Fraser sockeye, but fish farms most certainly are involved because DFO and the Province of BC sited them on the Fraser River migration route. The missing sockeye did swim through fish farm effluent. Rather than exempting fish farms from your investigation you must order complete disclosure of the health and number of farm salmon on the missing Fraser sockeye migration route in 2006-present. And we, the people of Canada and beyond, need to know why DFO is exonerating fish farms in the first few days of the investigation on what happened to one of earth’s most generous human food supplies?”

    Alexandra Morton

    See “Fraser River’s salmon stocks ‘beyond a crisis'”:

  2. Thanks for covering this critical story Chris. We seem to be so close to really losing the remaining stocks of salmon on both sides of the border, that it’s a shame there isn’t more red flags being raised at higher levels of the government. Where is the Puget Sound Partnership in this?

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