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Sockeye surge spawns concerns about stream overcrowding

As millions of sockeye salmon forge their way up the Fraser River, arguments are erupting in their wake - including a debate over whether regulators should allow more fish to be caught to prevent traffic jams in the streams and channels where the salmon go to spawn.

Overcrowding could result in millions of fish dying before they spawn and a needless waste of fish, University of British Columbia fisheries expert Carl Walters said this week.

In bustling Steveston, fishermen voiced the same concern.

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"We should have been taking this sockeye earlier," said Scott McClenaghan, as he prepared to take the 60-foot Cape Flattery back out to Johnstone Strait. He's already harvested 18,000 sockeye in two trips this month.

Not everybody believes more fishing is required. Some vulnerable runs, such as the Cultus Lake sockeye, could be hurt if significantly greater numbers of fish are taken at the mouth of the Fraser, said Ernie Crey, a fisheries adviser with the Sto:lo Tribal Council.

Most of the sockeye now headed up the Fraser are "late-run sockeye," comprising four different strains of the fish. There are as many as 40 different runs of sockeye on the river.

On Friday, the Pacific Salmon Commission increased its estimate for the Fraser River sockeye salmon run to 30 million, up from 25 million earlier in the week. The run is expected to be the biggest since 1913.

That's meant a banner year for fishermen, ranging from Indian bands who use nets up the Fraser River canyon to big boats that hunt for fish in Johnstone Strait.

Albion Fisheries, which buys fresh and frozen salmon and sells it to restaurants and grocery chains, is aggressively pitching B.C. sockeye to customers.

"The benefit for us is that prices continue to drop and there's more access to better-priced, high-quality fish," said Albion vice-president Guy Dean. At this time of year in previous seasons, Albion would have been telling customers to purchase Coho salmon that the company would get from Alaska. Now, Albion is pushing sockeye.

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The Canadian Fishing Company has been shipping fresh sockeye up to its plant in Prince Rupert for canning, said vice-president Robert Morley. At its plant in the Lower Mainland, about 350 people - double the number who worked there last year - are busy processing and packing seine-caught salmon for sale as fresh and frozen product.

The company's plants in Prince Rupert and Vancouver have been running full-tilt since early July, compared with a typical season of a few peak weeks in summer, Mr. Morley said.

"Normally everyone puts it on special for a week or two and then it's gone," Mr. Morley said. "We've never seen so much fresh product go to the market."

With a report from David Ebner

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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