If the early signals are correct, the Fraser River could have the biggest salmon run in B.C. history this summer, with up to 72 million sockeye returning.
That would be more than double the record number that came back in 2010, when about 30 million sockeye flooded into the Fraser, overwhelming fish plants with such bounty they ran out of ice and storage boxes.
"I mean, it's hard to fathom," Rollie Rose, president of Sooke Salmon Charters Ltd., said in an interview of the magnitude of the projections from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
He told colleagues in a recent e-mail: "The news could not be any better … you will see fishing this year better than you have seen in your lifetime."
Good ocean conditions for salmon in the past two years have resulted in forecasts of big runs all along the West Coast, extending into the United States, where officials recently predicted three million Chinook and coho for the Columbia River.
But the Fraser is expected to get the biggest return because the sockeye coming back are the progeny of the 2010 run, which was the largest in nearly 100 years.
Les Jantz, DFO's acting area director for the B.C. Interior, said it is too early to say with certainty just how many sockeye will return. The forecast ranges from a low of 7.3 million to a high of 72.5 million.
If it is at the high end, he said, it will top anything seen in the Fraser "as long as we've been keeping records."
Even at a conservative mid-range estimate of 23 million sockeye, it would be a prodigious run in a river where stocks have declined dramatically for nearly two decades, with runs of two to four million common. The run hit a low of 1.3 million in 2009 before bouncing back unexpectedly the next year in what many thought was a "one off" event.
In 2010, DFO saw signs of a good year and predicted four million to 29 million sockeye would return. As the season advanced, managers realized the high end would be reached.
A similar scenario may unfold this year, as fisheries managers begin to get hard data from sports anglers and commercial fishermen during early openings. By July, the numbers should be firm.
But Mr. Jantz said even at this early date, there is reason for excitement, because ocean conditions have been very good for salmon for the past three years, and a record number of young sockeye migrated out of the Fraser in the spring of 2012. Those fish would have encountered prime conditions, with upwellings of cold water that salmon prefer and are rich with the zooplankton and phytoplankton blooms young fish eat.
"We're always cautious. That's built into our system," he said. "But it's certainly looking good ."
Wilf Luedke, DFO's chief of stock assessment on the south coast, said the Fraser is not the only watershed that is looking good.
Mr. Luedke said there are indications of strong chinook and coho runs to several rivers, and a big sockeye run is expected to the Somas River on Vancouver Island.
Like Mr. Jantz, he credited ocean conditions.
"That's not the only factor, but it's the biggest one," he said.
He also noted that last year, large numbers of jack coho, chinook and sockeye returned to rivers. Jacks are immature fish that come back a year early. When a lot of them return, it usually signals a big run of mature fish will follow.
Mr. Luedke cautioned the forecast will not be certain until " the hooks and nets hit the water."
Ernie Crey, fisheries adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, said the forecast numbers are amazing.
"I think sockeye will be a banner year," he said.
But Mr. Crey urged DFO not to allow too much fishing before the actual size of the run is known.
"I say yes, be excited, and it's wonderful we're looking at this tremendous year in front of us. But I am always one to encourage them to exercise a bit of caution," he said.