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NW Fishletter #268, November 12, 2009

[8] Canada To Investigate Fraser Sockeye Debacle

A judge from the British Columbia Supreme Court has been picked to head an inquiry into this year's disastrous return of Fraser River sockeye, which led to a total shutdown of the Fraser-based commercial salmon fishery. More than 10 million fish were expected to show, but only about 1.4 million returned.

According to a press release from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, Judge Bruce Cohen will not only investigate the sockeye decline, but he will be expected to make recommendations for improving the sustainability of the Fraser sockeye salmon fishery, including any changes in relation to the DFO's management of the Fraser sockeye fishery. The report will be submitted to the government on or before May 1, 2011

"The Government is establishing a public inquiry to take all feasible steps to identify the reasons for the decline of the Fraser River sockeye salmon population," said the Prime Minister. "It is in the public interest to investigate this matter and determine the longer-term prospects for sockeye salmon stocks."

After predicting a 2009 return of more than 10 million sockeye, Canadian biologists were stunned at the poor show of the country's premier sockeye run. The first batch of returning Fraser sockeye, the Early Stuart run, returned at about half the original prediction of 165,000 fish. The second peak, the Early Summer run, was expected to come in around 740,000, but only about 175,000 showed. The largest component, the Summer run, was pegged at close to 9 million. However, after test fishing and initial inriver counts, only about 650,000 returned.

The Commission has already said the low returns may be due to factors in marine areas sometime between ocean entry in the late spring and early summer of 2007 and the adult return in 2009. Most juvenile Fraser sockeye migrate north up Georgia Strait. Farmed fish critics blame sea lice that the sockeye might have picked up from netpens on their migration up the inside of Vancouver Island.

The sockeye run in northern BC's Skeena River was extremely poor this year as well, but PSC biologist Mike LaPointe said earlier this year that the wild sockeye from Vancouver Island's Barkely Sound were returning in expected numbers, and the Harrison Late-run sockeye from the Fraser tributary were returning at twice their expected number of 69,000 fish. About 200,000 made it back to the Harrison.

LaPointe said the Harrison sockeye had a unique lifestyle compared to other Fraser stocks. They don't spend a year growing in freshwater lakes, but migrate down river shortly after they emerge from the gravel, and spend months hanging out in Georgia Strait before they head north to the Gulf of Alaska, via a route that takes them outside of Vancouver Island. Most Fraser juveniles quickly migrate up the inside.

These differences may have helped them survive better, said LaPointe, since Georgia Strait was fairly warm the year they went to sea in 2007.

The Fraser pink salmon run fared much better, in numbers that approached 20 million fish this year, about 10 percent higher than the preseason estimate. The pinks also travel up the inside route during their juvenile migration. -B. R.

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