The summer of 2022 will be a peak season for both pink and sockeye salmon in British Columbia’s rivers, with an experienced native fisherman reporting the largest catches of sockeye in decades.
Mitch Dudoward has worked in the salmon industry for over 40 years and says fishing on the Skeena River in northwestern BC has never been better.
“This is the best season I can remember in my life with the numbers we’re catching,” said Dudoward, who recently had a big sockeye catch aboard his gillnetter Irenda.
Meanwhile, Bob Chamberlin, president of the indigenous-led First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, said thousands of pink salmon are in the rivers of the Central Coast after years of minimal yields.
The strong run comes two years after the closure of two open-net Atlantic salmon farms in the area.
“We had it focused on those farms,” said Chamberlin, whose group wants open-net farms removed from BC waters. “We removed them and two years later we went from 200 fish in the river to where we now have several thousand. In our minds and knowledge that is a very clear indicator.”
But Bernie Taekema, a salmon expert who advises several salmon farms in BC, said data for pink salmon yields on the Central Coast and Broughton Archipelago show numbers in the area were much higher two years ago.
“Mr. Chamberlin does not recognize that trends in salmon returns are not based on one-year returns but on multi-year returns, and the trends are not associated with just one factor when it comes to salmon returns,” he said.
Ocean survival, habitat destruction, overfishing and “possibly, maybe fish farms” could all be factors for low salmon yields, Taekema said.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokeswoman Lara Sloan said departmental sightings indicated a major return of sockeye to the Skeena River.
“Test fisheries are currently reporting that Skeena sockeye returns are at the higher end of the forecast, with an in-season estimate of about four million sockeye,” Sloan said in a statement. “Sockeye populations returning to some areas in British Columbia, Washington and Alaska are returning better than predicted by 2022.”
The five-year average return from sockeye to the Skeena is 1.4 million and the 10-year average is 1.7 million, Sloan said.
Dudoward said the Skeena sockeye season ended this week, but it could have been longer.
“We should be fishing until the end of August, when the sockeye stops running,” he said. “There are plenty to take with you.”
The union representing the commercial fishermen on the Skeena agrees that the season was cut short, leaving the crews forfeited potentially more lucrative financial returns.
“We could absolutely have kept harvesting them and we were just told, ‘No,'” UFAWU-Unifor organizer Dawn Webb said in an interview. “We could still fish one hundred percent. Tons of fish are going through that now.”
But Sloan said the Department of Fisheries was cautious about salmon stocks.
“For 2022, the department is taking a more precautionary approach to managing the effects of commercial fishing on stocks of conservation problems, including smaller wild sockeye populations, comrade and steelhead returning to the Skeena River,” she said.
The fisheries department also expects a major sockeye run for the Fraser River and its tributaries this summer, but returns of chinook, coho and chum to the rivers and streams of the northern and central coast are expected to be low.
“The forecast range for Fraser River sockeye in 2022 is 2.3 million to 41.7 million, with an average forecast of 9.7 million,” Sloan said. “The median forecast means there is a 50 percent chance that returns will fall below that level.”
That’s well above the estimated 2.5 million sockeye revenue in 2021, according to data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Sockeye is the most sought after of the Pacific salmon species for their superior meat, color and quality, says the Department of Fisheries.
Abundant sockeye return occurs once every four years during a phenomenon called cyclic dominance, the department said.
The strong returns come amid debate over the future of open-net salmon farming in BC’s waters.
In 2018, the BC government, First Nations and the salmon farming industry reached an agreement to phase out 17 open-net farms in the Broughton Archipelago between 2019 and 2023.
The agreement to create a migration corridor without farms has been negotiated to help reduce damage to wild salmon.
In June, Federal Fisheries Secretary Joyce Murray said the government will consult with First Nations communities and salmon farms in the Discovery Islands, near Campbell River on Vancouver Island, about the future of open-net farming in the area.
A final decision on the future of the farms is expected in January 2023, the minister said.
“That’s such an important migration route of all Fraser River salmon, especially coho and chinook,” Chamberlin said. “If we want to see the return of Fraser runs, we need to remove barriers.”
More news, less ads: Our in-depth journalism is possible thanks to the support of our subscribers. For just $3.50 a week, you get unlimited, ad-lite access to The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post, and 13 other Canadian news sites. Support us by signing up today: The Vancouver Sun | The province.