Adams River late-run sockeye are arriving to spawn in greater numbers and in better health than forecast.
While an assessment is under way to provide a firm count, visual observation by Fisheries and Oceans Canada as well as the Adams River Salmon Society indicate that the pre-dominant run will deliver good news.
That’s despite earlier concerns that the return might be lower, consistent with sockeye returns in northern B.C.
“I would suggest we’re somewhat encouraged by the number of fish and the health of the fish we are seeing in the system for this year,” said Les Jantz, fisheries area director for the Interior. “It’s better than we anticipated as the fish entered the Fraser River. For whatever reason this year, they seem to be surviving.”
Fisheries staff have seen no mortality as the fish make their way up the Fraser and its tributaries, he noted.
The pre-dominant run — which precedes the more spectacular returns of the dominant cycle that takes place next year — normally means the return of about 10,000-plus sockeye to the river. This year, though, prospects were poorer still because the run represents the progeny of the 2009 return, which was the lowest in a century.
On top of this, Skeena River returns were historically low, so low that northern fisheries had to be closed in August.
At the same time, Darlene McBain, president of the Adams River Salmon Society, was worried that this might be another disastrous year. Hope was boosted as the sockeye entered the Fraser in numbers well within the usual range.
That’s resulted in more spawners on the grounds.
“On a visual level last year, you could only see 150 sockeye and this year we’re now seeing many more,” said Sheila Empey from Roderick Haig-Brown provincial park. Empey is administrator and education co-ordinator for the society, so she’s watching the river daily.
Local anglers reported seeing the run holding in Shuswap Lake a few weeks ago. As soon as cooler fall nights arrived, they swam into the river, Empey said.
Similarly, Little Shuswap First Nation counted a healthier return for the Scotch Creek early-run sockeye. That final count stood at 27,600, far greater than the 1,000 to 1,800 fish the band had expected.
“That was considerably better than what they forecast,” Empey said.
Although the 2014 dominant return will attract larger crowds to the park, visitors will be able to view the crimson spectacle this season from the mouth to the canyon. Chinook and pinks are also spawning.
The Adams has undergone wild fluctuations in sockeye returns in recent years. After 2009’s disappointment, the 2010 dominant run was the largest since 1913 at 34 million fish. About 3.9 million spawners made it to the Adams.
“The interesting thing about the late-run sockeye, historically they would hold in the gulf off the mouth of the Fraser River,” Jantz explained.
That changed in the mid-1990s, when the fish began moving into the river four to six weeks earlier. That was believed to be the cause of increased mortality due to warmer water temperatures and disease.
“They were having all kinds of problems surviving. There was huge mortality of 80 to 90 per cent before they even got to the river.”
This year, river temperatures were warm again, so that wasn’t the key determinant in the survival rate, Jantz said.
A year ago, the Cohen inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye reported that it could not find a single smoking gun to explain the phenomenon. Climate change, however, was cited as a significant stressor for sockeye and, in combination with other stressors, may determine the fate of the fishery.
Since that time, the Conservative government has largely ignored the inquiry’s 75 recommendations, critics say.