Poor outlook for B.C. sockeye salmon returns helping drive up prices

It's shaping up to be another dismal year for West Coast salmon fishermen.

Salmon returns, especially for highly prized sockeye, have been declining for decades and it looks like 2013 is offering no respite.

The Skeena River sockeye run, one of the most important B.C. salmon runs, has plunged to historic lows, The Canadian Press reports, forcing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to close it down entirely to sport and commercial fishing.

So far, the constitutionally protected aboriginal food fishery has not been shut down but it's under threat too. Cancellation would be unprecedented.

"If the numbers are the way they are, we've got to close everything down," Lake Babine Chief Wilf Adam, who was on his way Monday to discussions about its future, told CP.

"That's not an easy decision to make. Salmon is our livelihood. That is the soul of our being. To deny that from our citizens is not a happy event."

[Related: DFO closes 22 salmon pools to fishing ]

DFO reported near record-low Skeena sockeye returns last month.

"This is probably one of the lowest we've seen in about 50 years," Mel Kotyk, DFO North Coast area director, told CP at the time.

Only 453,000 sockeye were expected this year, compared with 2.4 million last year.

The reasons behind the decline aren't clear, with scientists pointing to everything from the warming of north Pacific waters due to climate change to increased predation and disease.

"We don't have anything definitive at this point," Kotyk told CP on Monday.

"Most of the Skeena fish come from the Babine system. And when they went out to sea they seemed to be very strong and healthy and in good numbers, so we think something happened in the ocean."

But conservationist Aaron Hill said the problem has been exacerbated by an ongoing Alaskan salmon fishery.

"The Alaskan commercial fisheries are still going right across the border and hammering these fish," Hill, who works with Watershed Watch, told CP last month. "We need to get as many of these fish back onto the spawning grounds as possible to ensure that this collapse isn't perpetuated in future years."

B.C. conservationists say Alaska's pink and chum salmon fisheries net a significant number of sockeye as bycatch, CP reported. The solution would be to move those fisheries closer to river mouths, past the point where Skeena sockeye are found.

"They just need to shift their fishing effort to a different location where they're not going to be catching so many of these fish," Hill said. "They could still target the abundant local stocks."

An official with the Alaska Department of Fish told CP it has cut fisheries roughly in half in response to Canadian concerns.

"Everything I've gotten from the Canadian side has been in agreement with what we've done," said salmon-fishery manager Scott Walker. "I haven't had anything negative, anything from them, the DFO, telling me that they felt we were not being conservative in nature."

Adam noted other species of salmon don't seem to be having the same problems as sockeye, with pinks and jacks (two-year-old, early-returning non-spawning sockeye) coming back in good numbers.

The outlook is also gloomy for the once massive Fraser River sockeye run, which so far is echoing the disastrous 2009 run that spawned a public commission of inquiry.

The Globe and Mail reported DFO has barred commercial and sport fishing for Fraser sockeye in the river and limited First Nations fishing.

This year's run is made up of the progeny of the 2009 run, which was among the smallest on record, the Globe noted. While nine million sockeye had been expected that year, only about one million returned.

The Cohen Commission, set up to investigate the cause of the 2009 collapse, released its report last year. It surveyed an array of potential causes and made 75 recommendations to the future sustainability of the Fraser sockeye run, including relocating commercial fish farms away from migration routes and eventually doing away with ocean-based net-pen farming.

None of the commission's recommendations have been implemented yet, the Globe said.

[ Related: Salmon’s powerful B.C. symbolism adds importance to Cohen Commission inquiry on sockeye crash ]

Pacific Salmon Commission chief biologist Mike Lapointe told the Globe 3.7 million sockeye were forecast to return in the summer-run group but less than 300,000 had shown up so far.

“There is definitely more coming," he said. "The question is, how many?”

Predictably, the decline in sockeye has driven up prices.

"It's $65.75 for a five-pound fish," Fishmonger Leah Moynahan on Vancouver's Granville Island, told CBC News.

That's about $30 higher than 2009, when prices started climbing steadily.

Sockeye fillets are fetching $20 a pound in Vancouver, up there with prime steaks.

"You can only catch so much wild sockeye but so many people want wild sockeye," Moynahan said.

(LiveScience photo)