Overview of this year’s Fraser sockeye returns
Here at Watershed Watch, we spend a lot of time advocating for sustainable salmon fisheries. We actively participate in management discussions at the Fraser River Panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission, and at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO’s) Integrated Harvest Planning Committee.
Balancing the needs of conservation and the understandable desire to maximize harvest and take advantage of salmon’s natural bounty is never easy. It’s further complicated by fact that the vast majority of fisheries are mixed stock, meaning that fishing the stronger, healthier stocks can’t be done without putting weaker stocks at risk. For more information on the challenges of mixed stock fisheries and alternative selective fishing options see our video Saving Wild Salmon by Changing the Way We Fish.
The following overview of this year’s Fraser sockeye returns by Watershed Watch Fisheries Specialist, Greg Taylor, highlights the complexity of the various runs, as well as emphasizing that, contrary to comments made elsewhere, harvesters did not miss out on a large amount of salmon for the sake of conservation in this year’s sockeye return.
Preliminary results for the 2014 Fraser sockeye season have been released. They will remain preliminary until final escapement data are released in the spring. This summary is based on the 4 run-timing groups that DFO and the PSC use to manage the 40+ genetically unique populations of sockeye the return to the Fraser each year.
Early Stuart: This is the earliest of the Fraser sockeye runs, and the smallest in terms of total abundance. These fish swim half the length of our province on their way home to Stuart Lake, northwest of Prince George. They returned at about 80% of the pre-season estimate with 233,500 accounted for past the Mission hydroacoustic counting facility. It is unclear what their spawning success has been but there were early reports of relatively high pre-spawn mortality. The harvest rate was 11%. Marine test fisheries early in July suggested a poor return of Early Stuart sockeye. The Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) and DFO did not permit the anticipated fisheries to proceed. This was lucky as Early Summers returned much weaker than forecast and any harvest of Early Stuart sockeye would have made the management of both the Early Summer and Summer groups more difficult.
Early Summers: This run-timing group is the 2nd largest in terms of abundance and returned at 46% of their pre-season forecast. The exploitation rate is estimated to be 42.7%. The largest and also weakest component of this management group was Early Thompson sockeye. This population returned at 40% of its pre-season projection. The Nadina group, comprised of many of the Upper Fraser Early Summer stocks, was slightly short of its pre-season prediction. The Canadian Caucus of the Fraser River Panel (FRP) did not accept the recommendations of the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) and maintained higher than recommended run size estimates and lower management adjustments (the additional escapement added to account for potential in-river mortality) through the fishery decision-making period to permit additional harvest on the relatively abundant summer run-timing group.
Summers (excluding Harrison): This group returned at 127% of their pre-season prediction with both Late Stuart/Stellako and Quesnel coming in well above expectations. The estimated exploitation rate is 55.2%. Early harvest opportunities for summers were constrained due to concerns over Early Summers. The Commission recommended more cautious in-season run-size estimations and management adjustments than what the Fraser Panel adopted (the Panel is dominated by fishermen). The Commission’s in-season estimates were complicated both because 90% of Fraser sockeye migrated through Johnstone Straits in 2014 and Harrison sockeye were very strong. Meanwhile, even though river temperatures and flow suggested that a high management adjustment should be adopted—because the warm water and low flows would kill many fish before they could spawn—there was little in-season information to support these model-generated estimates. Because this was the management group with the least conservation constraints, DFO and the Fraser Panel were aggressive in their efforts to maximize harvest opportunities. In determining safe harvest rates for Quesnel sockeye, fishery managers made no allowance for any potential elevated mortality of Quesnel Lake sockeye associated with the massive spill of metal-laden mine waste into Quesnel Lake in August.
Lates: Late sockeye, returning primarily to Shuswap Lake, are the most abundant of the 4 run timing groups and they returned at about 75% of their pre-season prediction. The exploitation rate was 56.2%. After several years of inexplicably not holding in the Gulf of Georgia before entering the Fraser River, this run-timing group returned to its traditional pattern of remaining for an extended period in the Gulf before migrating up the Fraser. This complicated assessments. Most dispassionate observations suggested a run size of about 9-10 million fish was quite likely. But high, prolonged testing and fishing in marine areas convinced DFO and the Canadian Caucus of the Fraser Panel that the return was much stronger. We warned DFO and the Fraser Panel that it was not unknown for large or consistent catches to lead to overestimations of the abundance of schooling fish populations. The Fraser Panel, needing the higher estimates of abundance to harvest both summers and lates, and reduce estimated impacts on the endangered Cultus sockeye (which migrate alongside very abundant late-run stocks), was less than precautionary when assessing the full range of available information in establishing abundance estimates for the late run. This placed additional pressure on Cultus sockeye. Cultus impacts are assumed to be similar to lates.
Although representatives from the commercial fishing industry and others have complained about the lack of opportunity provided to harvesters; the results paint a different story:
- The total catch of Fraser sockeye was 10.7 million and would have been 11.8 million if the US had caught its share
- The Harvest Rate over the whole return was 54% and would have been just under 60% if the US had caught its share
- Harvest Rates were: Early Stuart (11%), Early Summers (42.7%), Summers (55.2%) and Lates (56.2%)
- Canada was slightly over its Total Allowable Catch of 9.88 million sockeye
- If Industry and DFO completely eliminated the management adjustment, providing no precautionary buffer for in-river mortality or management uncertainty whatsoever, it would only have increased the harvest by 1 million or just over 9%
- The PSC estimated that the total return of Fraser sockeye was roughly 1.5 million less than what the Fraser Panel adopted in-season.
Most of the 44 Fraser sockeye populations appear, prior to final spawning escapement counts, to have done reasonably well relative to both their brood year and cycle year returns with the exception of possibly Cultus. See the following tables for more information.
(Click either table for PDF versions)