A modest increase in the size of sockeye runs returning to the Fraser River and an anticipated boom of pink salmon – which could number 17 million this year – should once again give commercial fishing on the West Coast a much-needed boost.
The flurry of activity this week marks the second successive year in which the Fraser has supported commercial fisheries after several years of closings.
The gillnet fleet was given an opening on the weekend and will get another opportunity Tuesday. The seine fleet was out Monday, with a troll-fleet opening set to begin at midnight.
So far, commercial boats have been targeting sockeye, but the focus is expected to shift dramatically in the next few weeks to pink salmon, when a huge run is expected to enter the Strait of Georgia.
Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission, said test fishing indicates the Fraser sockeye runs are coming in later but stronger than anticipated. And he's hoping the same will hold true for pink salmon, the bulk of which typically arrive after the sockeye.
"It's probably going to be two weeks before we have a good handle on relative abundance [of pinks] because they are not showing in the levels we'd expect yet. I'd suspect that's probably because they are late," he said.
The current estimate for the size of the pink run is 17 million, but confirmation won't come until test-fishing results build over the next few weeks.
This year, sockeye have been coming back anywhere from two to 10 days later than usual, perhaps because cool weather has the Fraser River running higher and with colder-than-normal water temperatures.
Mr. Lapointe said the sockeye numbers have been steadily climbing in recent days, however, and current estimates put the run at 3.9 million, up from an early forecast of three million.
And the total could yet climb.
"I would anticipate in another two weeks our estimates will start to stabilize – and maybe we'll end up with four million or five million fish, which would be great," Mr. Lapointe said.
A run of three to five million sockeye is considerably smaller than the surge of nearly 30 million fish that gave the Fraser a banner year in 2010 – but it is a lot better than the catastrophically low run of 1.5 million in 2009.
Mr. Lapointe said the big swings in numbers are still not understood, but fisheries managers are trying to deal with the unpredictable nature of the runs by being more responsive during the fishing season.
He said test fishing, which takes place in a number of locations both at sea and in the river, gives managers the most accurate estimates of run sizes so fisheries can be opened or closed in response.
"What we really have to focus on is doing the assessments in season and reacting to the changes that we see," he said. "In 2009 we were expecting 10.4 million. We got 1.5 million. What did we do? Well, we pretty much shut down all the fisheries on the coast because we detected a very small run. … In 2010, we were expecting about 11 million. We got 30 million and were able to have a number of sustainable fisheries."
He said pre-season forecasts are based on the size of the spawning run from four years previous – but those estimates are really just a best guess.
"You are forecasting how many fish are going to survive [to return as adults] over a four-year period, based on the number of fish that spawned … Well, I don't think people should be too surprised that there could be quite a bit of variation," he said.
He said one of the bright spots for sockeye this year has been the size of the run to the Harrison, a tributary that enters the Fraser about 40 kilometres east of Vancouver.
Historically, the Harrison has had runs of about 10,000 fish; the largest run was in 1975, when 45,000 sockeye returned. But the sockeye population has increased dramatically on its four-year cycle, going from 8,000 spawners (2003) to 128,000 (2007). This year, it is expected to reach a remarkable 640,000 fish.
Mr. Lapointe said fisheries scientists can't explain why the Harrison run is growing so dramatically, but he noted the fish have an unusual life cycle that sees them migrate to the ocean in their first year of life rather than the second.