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‘Disastrous’: Worst sockeye year on record for B.C.

Last Updated Sep 10, 2019 at 8:40 am PDT

The so-called “bumper crop” of Fraser River sockeye in the Adams River run at Salmon Arm in Sept 2018 Ash Kelly, NEWS 1130 Photo

The Fraser River Panel says 557,000 sockeye returned this year

On September 5th, the Fraser River water levels measured seven per cent lower and 2 degrees warmer than average

Many are calling for emergency financial relief as fleets sit idle despite normal forecast

NEW WESTMINSTER (NEWS 1130) — This year has officially brought the worst fishing season on record for sockeye returns in British Columbia.

Only about one in 10 fish predicted to return for spawning in 2019 made it back from the ocean to their respective rivers, nary a single fishery opened to welcome the runs.

Guy Dean, CEO and president of Ocean Organic says entire communities and fleets are reeling from the low returns and facing an economic reality no one would wish on their worst enemy.

“It’s been dismal. Obviously it’s been a disastrous year for all the fishers and all for many of those companies that depend on that,” says Dean.

Things have been so bad, in fact,that you have probably been munching on Alaskan sockeye all season without even knowing it.

“If you’re getting fresh sockeye now it’s coming from Alaska, it’s not coming from Canada for sure,” Dean says.

That’s in part because while B.C. sockeye fisheries have remained closed through 2019, some Alaskan runs are seeing record returns.

RELATED: New viruses discovered in declining B.C. salmon populations

Record breaking runs in U.S waters

Andy Wink is the executive director of Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. He has also worked as a fisheries economist and says there are a lot of factors contributing to the Alaskan boom.

“We’ve had back-to-back-to-back phenomenal years in Bristol Bay and virtually all the salmon caught in Bristol Bay are sockeye. That has an affect on world markets but there are other things as well that affect fish prices; the value of the dollar certainly and the value of farmed salmon prices,” says Wink.

While sockeye runs on the Skeena and Fraser Rivers have seen declining returns in recent years, Alaskan sockeye are seeing year-over-year increases and record-setting returns at the same time.

“There’s just a lot of luck to it. If you’re the one producing something and others aren’t producing as much of it I suppose you stand to gain. We’ve seen large runs in recent years. Some other fisheries in other areas have dealt with warmer water or poor runs,” Wink explains.

Dean laments the lack of B.C. salmon on people’s plates this year as a lost opportunity. He believes our large river systems result in a higher fat content in B.C. sockeye, giving the fish a unique terroir.

“It’s just a fantastic product and not being able to have that premium product, that great flavour to really promote Canada, it’s a shame,” says Dean.

But the important thing, says Wink, is to protect the habitat that remains and carefully manage the still-succeeding runs.

“Wherever the fish come from the main thing is to appreciate and celebrate wild salmon. It’s a pretty rare thing to be able to catch these wild creatures as a food product and for people to be able to enjoy them,” says Wink.

Dean, whose company Organic Ocean distributes Alaskan salmon to B.C. consumers and restaurants, doesn’t necessarily look to Alaska for stock management tips but he says the Canadian government should pay attention to how Alaska supports the industry during a downturn.

“From offloading facilities, trucking facilities, grocery, fuel; everybody is really impacted … but if I look at what happens in Alaska when they have poor fishing times, they do raise a state of emergency and there is usually subsidization for those fishers,” he points out.

Calls for emergency relief

Many fishers haven’t hauled in a net since the end of 2018, according to Joy Thorkelson, President, United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (Unifor).

“The income they made in 2018 is going to have to stretch for two years and I can tell you that the fishing in 2018 was good but it wasn’t that good,” she says, estimating about 2,000 workers have been impacted

“What’s happening is just a disaster for all the fisherman and shore workers, people who work in plants and who mend nets and have been waiting all summer for this season.”

Thorkelson points out that Fisheries and Oceans Canada predicted the return of nearly 5 million sockeye this year.

“Fisherman geared up and got their boats ready, spent money on their nets, spent money on gas, when to the fishing grounds and do nothing but sit and they’re just flat broke and need assistance right now,” she says.

She warns some boat owners may lose their boats while others will struggle to maintain them through the hard times.

“We got a phone call from a gillnetter from the north coast. He said that he was going to have to give up his boat. He was two and a half payments behind to the bank and he was not going to make those two and a half payments because if he made them he saw no way to make the rest of the payments in the future,” Thorkelson says.

On top of the financial troubles, boat owners have been scrambling to find ticketed deck hands, an issue Thorkelson worries will only worsen as skilled and qualified individuals exit the industry or the region for more stability.

Sustainable or not?

Climate change, over-fishing and habitat destruction have all been implicated in the decline of west coast salmon but not everyone agrees on what should be done about it.

Thorkelson says the government knows what to do but whether it happens or not is a matter of political will.

“We need to have a climate adaptation strategy and DFO hasn’t even talked about climate change to any of us,” says Thorkelson, adding she regularly attends meetings between the feds and commercial fishers and “there’s never been a discussion about climate change adaptation.”

Dean, with Organic Ocean (which both fishes and distributes salmon) says the government has put enough restrictions on commercial fleets and the only thing that isn’t sustainable about fishing right now is the business model.

“I look at what happens in Alaska when they have poor fishing times, they do raise a state of emergency and there is usually subsidization for those fishers. Unfortunately we have not taken that route [in Canada],” he says.

For years, sport fishers have decried the shuttering of their own activities while watching commercial fleets net millions of salmon at the mouths of giant rivers such as the Fraser and Skeena, saying the commercial take does far more damage to the population.

But this year, the commercial sockeye fleet sat idle alongside the sport and Indigenous fisheries as the federal fisheries department declared it “unlikely” that there would be any openings at all in 2019.

Within the commercial industry there’s some resistance to further regulations, limitations or closures on that fleet, while sport fishers and conservationists are calling for cautionary approach that leaves more fish in the water.

“Everybody is passionate about that, everybody is focussed on that. We have all set aside marine protected areas, we’ve worked with the government to make sure we’re fishing in the right period and the right times,” says Dean.

“If it was me and I was a young person I would definitely not be looking at investing in this industry or entering into this industry.”