Low sockeye returns cause for concern

This was supposed to be a banner year for sockeye salmon runs in the Fraser River, but as local First Nations continue to see few fish in their nets and conservation restrictions remain in place, many are worried about catching enough fish to get them through the winter.

"It's putting a real damper on the food fishery," said T't'q'et Community Chief Bill Machell. "The fish just aren't there."

Tom Grantham, Lillooet detachment supervisor for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), said officials with DFO and the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) are at a loss to explain where the sockeye have disappeared.

"We should have seen the summer run by about Aug. 7," Grantham said on Aug. 11. "All the runs have been seven to 10 days late this year so we're hoping that the fish are out there (in the ocean) and we've just missed them in the test fisheries."

Even if the sockeye do show up late, DFO officials say it's unlikely the summer run will come close to the 11 million fish that were earlier forecast. They're now predicting from two to five million fish may return.

Grantham said if fewer than three million make it into the Fraser River system, there will likely be no commercial fishery and no sports fishery on the summer run in 2005.

Restrictions on the aboriginal food fishery will also remain in place unless more fish enter the Fraser, he said.

"We're doing that because we're trying to limit the pressure on the salmon and still give First Nations the opportunity to fish," Grantham said.

Currently the aboriginal food fishery is restricted to "dry rack only" meaning fish must be prepared on site by canning or drying for three days a week. The fishery remains open for all gear four days a week.

But no matter what gear fishermen use they're finding their nets are empty most of the time, Chief Machell said.

"For a lot of people fishing is very important," he said. "Because of our history it's part of our diet. It's very important, especially for elders."

The sockeye runs are divided into four components, the early Stuart, early summer, summer, and late summer runs. The total predicted run this year was about 12.5 million. The summer run, expected to be 11-million strong this year because of the strength of the run in 2001, is by far the largest component.

DFO has come under fire for lack of enforcement in recent years but officials say increased resources have made a difference in 2005. A senior DFO enforcement official recently told the Vancouver Sun the department had responded to 90 per cent of over 200 reports for fishing infractions on the Fraser and seized 150 nets. The official said he was confident the number of fish caught illegally this season would be low.

Bridge River Lillooet News AUG 17th 2005.

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