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Pink salmon surge draws caution for fishery managers

Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society - File
Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society
— image credit: File

A huge number of pink salmon returning to the Fraser River has conservationists warning that the temptation to fish them heavily could still threaten at-risk sockeye salmon.

The Pacific Salmon Commission estimates 26 million pinks are returning to the river this year – almost three times as many as expected.

Commercial fishermen, anglers and First Nations all got the go ahead to fish for pinks after sockeye fishing was closed this summer to ensure enough of that species get upstream to spawn after a lower-than-forecast return and dangerously warm river temperatures.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr warned the pressure to fish abundant pinks can result in an accidental bycatch of sockeye, as well as weak runs of Interior coho salmon.

"This return of sockeye this year are the ones coming back from the disastrous 2009 return that triggered the Cohen Inquiry," Orr said. "We have to take special care with these sockeye. There's not a lot of them around."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans did halt commercial pink fishing near the river mouth Tuesday night, a decision Orr applauds.

He said it's deceptive to look solely at the overall number of sockeye estimated to be returning this year – about 3.7 million compared to just 1.6 million in 2009 at the previous point in the four-year life cycle – and conclude stocks are rebounding.

Individual runs of sockeye returning to specific streams can go extinct if they're victims of a bycatch when fishermen target stronger sockeye stocks, like the Quesnel Lake run, or, in this case, large numbers of pinks.

"We still have many sockeye stocks in the Fraser River that are in the red zone that have been declining rapidly over the past several generations," Orr said.

"We don't want to cause local extinctions because people can't move and they're depending on those fish coming back to their back yards."

Orr is urging care to fish selectively and release sockeye caught accidentally when fisheries are permitted.

He was also critical of the federal government for so far failing to formally respond to the 75 recommendations of the Cohen Commission to address the sockeye decline, released nearly a year ago.

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