Return of the sockeye

Commercial fleet tastes first sockeye catch of the season. Maple Ridge dock busy with boats.

Sockeye salmon fishermen are busy at Kanaka Landing in Maple Ridge on a sweltering Monday. Commercial fishing opening lasted for only three hours. (Insets) Jay Oswald and Kevin Fairley load sockeye into a receiving bin on his barge Slush.

Sockeye salmon fishermen are busy at Kanaka Landing in Maple Ridge on a sweltering Monday. Commercial fishing opening lasted for only three hours. (Insets) Jay Oswald and Kevin Fairley load sockeye into a receiving bin on his barge Slush.

As the Ocean Renegade drifts closer, Jay Oswald leaps off his barge and into her hold to toss sockeye salmon into a huge white plastic bin.

Behind him, four other boats cluster, waiting to offload their catch.

As a crane lifts a load of sockeye off the boat and on to his barge named Slush, Oswald scans the scale, yelling the weight of the catch to his colleague Kevin Fairley who scribbles it on to a form.

“535!,” bellows Oswald as sockeye slip into a slurry of ice, all destined for a fish-processing plant in Steveston.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates this year’s Fraser River sockeye run could see as many as 23 million salmon.

For the first time this season, 250 gillnetting boats fished the Fraser River from Steveston to Mission during a three-hour opening for the commercial fleet on Monday.

Fishermen docking at Kanaka Landing in Maple Ridge say it’s still too early to say how good the run is.

“It’s coming, it’s coming,” said Bill Rosiek, a veteran commercial gill netter who has been fishing the coast for the past 56 years.

Rosiek was on board the Top Gunnar Monday, which hauled in about 400 sockeye during the brief opening from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“It was way too short,” mumbled Rosiek, a cigarette hanging from his mouth as he tied the boat.

Joe Lepore on the “Tony Lou” agreed.

“I’d like to catch 10,000 if I could,” he said, with a laugh. The fish were selling for $15 a piece on the dock.

The prized red sockeye entering the river now are the offspring of the 2010 run — the largest sockeye return on the Fraser in 100 years.

This year is shaping up to be similar in scope, with high forecast predicting as many as 70 million sockeye returning to B.C. rivers. The bulk of it will be in the late run which includes the prodigious Adams River stock.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates around 70,000 sockeye were caught Monday, with each boat hauling an average catch of 275.

There are no more openings planned for this week but Barbara Mueller, a resource manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, expects an update later in the week.

Limited recreational fisheries for sockeye opened on the Fraser River last week, with catch limits of four per day below the Mission Bridge, while aboriginal ceremonial and food sockeye fishing started two weeks ago.

“We try to make our decisions based on the most recent estimates and stock composition,” said Mueller.

Fisheries enforcement officers were out on the Fraser Monday making sure boats were complying with the conditions of the fishery.

Mueller said compliance was good.

Only one boat received a first appearance notice for failing to lift its nets at the 6 p.m. deadline.

“We didn’t receive any other reports of serious infractions,” she added.

Bob McKamey, with the Area E Gillnetters Association, said fishermen are welcoming this year’s run. The last two years have been bleak, with only one chum opening each of the past two years and no sockeye fisheries.

“They have waited a long time for a sockeye fishery. A lot us are just looking forward to getting a fresh one to the table,” McKamey said.

with files from Black Press & Phil Melnychuk