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Sockeye openings start despite survival concerns

Recreational anglers will once again be dancing on the banks of the Fraser River as sports fishing for sockeye salmon gets underway. - File photo
Recreational anglers will once again be dancing on the banks of the Fraser River as sports fishing for sockeye salmon gets underway.
— image credit: File photo

Commercial fishermen and sports anglers are now getting their first crack at what's hoped to be a record return of Fraser River sockeye salmon.

A 38-hour opening is to begin Saturday evening in Johnstone Strait near Campbell River for commercial gillnetters, likely the first of several openings this summer.

Recreational fishing for sockeye opened in marine areas Friday, with tidal sections of the lower Fraser opening to anglers Sunday and non-tidal areas further upstream expected to open the middle of next week.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans area director Les Jantz said most sockeye stocks appear to be coming in close to or slightly below expectations.

There's no in-season estimate of the run size yet, but the mid-range forecast was for 23 million sockeye, with potential for that to be as low as 7.2 million and as high as 72 million due to an unusual level of uncertainty.

Fishery managers are carefully watching to ensure enough sockeye get back upstream to spawn in light of challenging river conditions.

Water levels are 11 per cent below normal, which Jantz said also means the river can heat up fast to dangerously warm temperatures in a bout of hot weather.

The river temperature was 18.4 degrees on July 31 – 0.7 degrees higher than average for this date – and expected to warm to 20.7 degrees in the next few days.

Sustained exposure to water at that temperature can stress migrating sockeye, killing many before they spawn.

DFO will this year let up to 65 per cent of the run be caught or die of other causes on their migration, an increase from 60 per cent in past years to allow more fishing opportunity.

That decision has been criticized by conservation groups that say DFO has authorized overfishing that will result in a high bycatch of threatened stocks, such as Cultus Lake sockeye and Interior coho, which migrate alongside the more abundant sockeye.

Jantz said DFO is prepared to make further adjustments to the fishing plan as more run size information comes in to ensure weak stocks aren't severely damaged by the sockeye fishery.

Fishing by First Nations for food, social and ceremonial purposes has been underway since late July, with 70,000 sockeye caught as of Aug. 1.

Aboriginal groups will also get to fish commercially for sale under "economic opportunity" agreements with DFO.

The high uncertainty over this year's run is because a huge number of sockeye returned four years ago.

"Some of the levels of spawn we witnessed were considerably larger than anything we had ever witnessed in the past," he said.

While that creates potential for a massive record run, veteran sockeye watchers know  disappointment could be blamed on anything from predators in the open ocean to excessive competition for food among all those juvenile salmon.

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