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Fraser sockeye test fishing curtailed to conserve weak run

A commercial fishing boat harvests sockeye salmon on the Fraser River near Surrey during the 2010 season. This year
A commercial fishing boat harvests sockeye salmon on the Fraser River near Surrey during the 2010 season. This year's much lower sockeye return and dangerously hot river water temperatures mean no fishery is expected.
— image credit: File

Lower-than-hoped returns of Fraser River sockeye and dangerously hot water temperatures upstream have prompted fishery managers to curtail test fishing in a bid to let as many salmon spawn as possible.

About 82,000 sockeye have already been caught through test fisheries and those salmon are sold to help offset the $1.4-million cost of the test program, which is critical to gauging the strength of incoming runs.

Pacific Salmon Commission chief biologist Mike Lapointe said Wednesday about half of test fishing operations have now been cancelled.

And three seine boats that continue to test fish offshore are now ordered to release nearly all sockeye after counting them instead of harvesting them.

"We're trying to be good citizens and minimize our impact," Lapointe said.

Asked why test fishing wasn't adjusted earlier, he said the commission acted quickly once it became apparent continued hot, dry weather would pose a major risk.

"As soon as we knew we had a bad situation we acted as fast as we could," Lapointe said. "Ideally, in perfect hindsight, it would have been nice if we could have stopped sooner but there was no way for us to anticipate that."

Although the test fishing program is $200,000 short of the revenue to cover its expenses, Lapointe said conservation, not budget concerns, guided the timing of the decision.

Sto:lo fishery advisor Ernie Crey said first nations have argued for catch-and-release test fishing for years, adding it would have reduced pressure on threatened Fraser stocks.

"Far more fish would have been up the Fraser River in all the intervening years," Crey said. "It's better late than never. Finally they do the right thing at a time when fish runs are perilously low."

There's been no commercial and sport fishing for Fraser sockeye this summer with no prospect for any unless the main summer run merely turns out to be late in arriving.

Lapointe said there are some signs that may be the case.

But even then, deadly high river water temperatures of more than 21 degrees now threaten to kill up to 70 per cent of incoming sockeye before they can spawn, meaning many more must be allowed to swim upriver to compensate.

"We're expecting only on the order of a third of these fish to survive their journey up the Fraser to the spawning areas," Lapointe said.

As a result, he said, there's a "significant risk" that no more sockeye may end up spawning this year than in the disastrous 2009 season that triggered the Cohen Inquiry.

Sockeye run on a four-year cycle, so the fish now migrating are the offspring of the 2009 run, and it had been hoped this would be the year that run started to rebuild.

The main summer run of Fraser sockeye is estimated at two million and although Lapointe said that may climb it may not be enough.

"We need a significantly larger run to get to any kind of harvestable surplus because the river conditions are so bad."

Aboriginal food fishing has also been halted after a catch of about 270,000 sockeye, mainly from the early summer and early Stuart components of the run that had come in a bit stronger than expected.

It now looks like this year's total Fraser River run will fall well short of the forecast of roughly 4.6 million but better than the 1.6 million return of 2009 when more than 10 million were expected.

There may be commercial, aboriginal and sport fishing for Fraser pink salmon – which are expected to arrive strongly in September – but that could also be reined in if there's a risk of late-running sockeye being caught as a bycatch.

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