Port Alberni, BC –
This year, the return of sockeye to the Somass River was about double the pre-season run size estimate.
While the Somass River pre-season forecast hovered around 400,000, it was recalculated to 950,000 as of July 28.
It’s a trend seen across the entire coast – from Bristol Bay to the Fraser River, according to Tseshaht First Nation fisheries manager Dave Rolston.
“I think all fisheries have benefited from increased numbers,” he said.
Uu-a-thluk deputy program manager Jim Lane said the bulk of the returning fish are four years old, meaning ocean conditions were “favorable for their growth and survival” when they are entered the ocean as juveniles in 2020.
Forecasting models that predict run sizes are based on assumed survival in the ocean by the time juvenile salmon enter the sea, he said.
“And that’s unknown until they come back and you can see what their survival is,” Lane said.
A management forecast is used to dictate the amount of allowable catch open to fishing, he added.
It’s designed to be “preventive” so fish that return early are protected, Lane said.
The management model is adjusted during the fishing season as more run size information is collected as fish enter the system.
This year’s wet spring and high snowpack in the high mountains of British Columbia contributed to high water levels that were cool at the start of the upwelling.
Due to these “favorable” conditions, Lane said the sockeye salmon quickly moved up the river.
The challenge with this is that it’s hard to determine if the salmon are just migrating quickly or if it’s a really big migration, Lane said.
“It’s disconcerting,” he said.
All of those considerations go into the decision-making process, Lane said.
Somass River sockeye salmon production comes from Great Central and Sproat lakes.
While the increased run size meant there was more opportunity for fishermen to generate income, Rolston said the fishery was “limited by the initial estimate of run size”.
By the time the run size was revised, Lane said a lot of fish had already come up the river.
It’s a balance between being “very careful” about how racing is regulated, while trying to “provide an opportunity for people to earn a living,” Rolston said.
“It was kind of a magnifying glass,” he said. “People put in hours and hours and only get small amounts of fish.”
Towards the end of the sockeye run, Rolston said there were “a number of weary anglers who have spent many, many hours fishing for not many fish”.
Les Sam was among the first anglers on the Somass River at the start of the season in June.
Because the water was so high and fast, many didn’t risk it and waited until the middle of the race, he said.
“The fishing was quite dangerous at the start of the race,” he said. “I lost a bit of material. I tore the nets on the snags and all that. If the fast water pushes you onto something, it’s hard to pull it back.
Sam keeps a knife fore and aft of the boat in case he needs to break free.
“You have to exercise caution, fear and understanding of what can happen if things go wrong,” he said.
The 65-year-old has been fishing since being educated by his father when he was just 5 years old.
For Sam, the risk of losing gear is worth getting on the water early.
“I am a fisherman,” he says. “I have to catch fish to make a living.”
About 28,000 sockeye were donated to Tseshaht members through community distribution, Rolston said.
Meanwhile, the total catch between the Tseshaht and Hupačasath First Nations economic opportunity fisheries was just over 90,000, he said.
French Creek Fresh Seafood and Hub City Fish Market are two of the biggest buyers of economic opportunity fishing, while smaller brokers and roadside sales make up the rest, Rolston said.
If the fishery is able to get sockeye salmon to market before Bristol Bay or any other Alaskan fishery opens, Rolston said they are usually able to charge around $4.50 $ per pound.
But as soon as Bristol Bay opened, Rolston said “they are flooding the market with sockeye salmon”.
That can drop the market value to around $2.50 a pound, he added.
“At this point our members have more incentive to get more money for their fish by selling to the roadside or to specialty buyers,” Rolston said.
Now that the sockeye run is largely over, anglers are gearing up for the Chinook.
“It’s a bit of a money fish,” Rolston said.
Although the openings are shorter, chinook are generally more valuable because they are the largest of the Pacific salmon.
The projected 2022 return of Stamp River and adult Chinook salmon from Robertson Creek Hatchery to Barkley Sound and Alberni Inlet is 135,000.
After a period of modest increases among wild populations, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) wrote that Chinook salmon escapements have declined over the past four years for many wild stocks.
Fewer than 100 spawning salmon have been observed in some southwestern Vancouver Island rivers in recent years.
“Chinook from the Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island therefore remains a stock of concern,” DFO wrote.
While Rolston said it’s easy to “get depressed” by changes in the ocean environment, “there’s always hope.”
“Every angler should be optimistic,” he said. “You also have to be realistic, especially if you’re trying to make a living.”