Sockeye salmon run deemed a ‘disaster’
By Jack Kintner
This year’s Fraser River Sockeye run, never expected to be very large, turned out to be a disaster for local fishermen when a meager run turned out to be half of what was expected and locals had to plow through a muddy, opaque algae bloom to catch them.
Given just a few days openings in the early and late runs that come through the area in July and August, local commercial fishers were after their share of the estimated 1.7 million fish that made their way to the Fraser.
That may sound like a lot, but chief biologist Michael Lapointe of the governing international sockeye commission said that they’d expected almost twice that many, and that in a good year as many as 12 to 15 million fish return. Average is about seven million.
“The season’s basically over,” he said, “after just a few days.”
Lapointe’s agency is responsible for deciding when to grant openings that will effectively divide the catch between Americans and Canadians.
The American catch is divided in half a second time between Indian and non-Indians, and this year that meant sharing an estimated 100,000 fish between the two groups.
The poor expectations resulted in a delayed fishery. The total non-Indian catch for Washington was about 45,000 fish, Lapointe said, and of those almost all, 32,000, were caught near Neah Bay, leaving just 13,000 fish.
It might have been better as ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska forced the Sockeye run to the south, meaning it would access the Fraser estuary around the south end of Vancouver Island, putting them in reach of U.S. fishers.
But an unusual algae bloom in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and in local waters doomed the catch, covering the gill nets with a slimy kind of mud that made the nets visible to the fish. Several fishers interviewed at the Blaine launching ramp last weekend reported ten or fewer fish, their boats covered with a layer of caked-on mud that made them look more like they’d been playing football in the rain instead of fishing.
“The local fleet is down to four or five seiners and gill netters,” said Dodd, “and this is one reason why. The fish just aren’t there.” Twenty years ago there were 30 seiners and 80 gill netters, Dodd estimated, going after runs as high as 20 million fish.
Next the local commercial fishers will go after the fall Chum run in October, which is expected to be fairly good this year. It’s hoped that the Sockeye run, which is on a four year cycle, will rebound next year to at least five to seven million fish, Lapointe said.