The continued decline of Fraser River sockeye is being met with disappointment, but the dwindling numbers don't come as a surprise to some.
Aaron Hill, an ecologist with the Coquitlam-based Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the predominant factor in predicting this year's run can be traced back four years. At that time, the stock was on the verge of collapse - returns totalled only about 1.5 million fish, down from expectations of 10.4 million - and this year's returning fish are the offspring of that decimated 2009 run.
"It shouldn't be a big surprise that they're coming in low," Hill said. "[Fisheries and Oceans Canada] shouldn't be surprised either because sockeye returns up and down the coast from Alaska down to the Fraser have been coming back small. There were lots of early indications it was going to be a small run."
Last Friday the Pacific Salmon Commission lowered its forecast for the Fraser River's main summer sockeye run to two million fish from a pre-season forecast of 3.7 million fish. The key summer runs represent about 80 per cent of sockeye returns to the Fraser River.
That severe drop is also being felt by members of the Kwikwetlem First Nation. Typically, the band is permitted several 48-hour openings to fish for sockeye, according to chief Ron Giesbrecht.
This year, the band has had two openings, each of which lasted about 18 hours. In that time, six boats were able to net about 240 fish - less than half of what they would catch in an equivalent time frame in years past.
"I know something's happening to them, but I'm not sure what it is. It is a disappointment," Giesbrecht said. "The sockeye are very important to us. The oil in their bodies really helps our elders out, and keeps them healthy."
Hill said a multitude of factors are likely playing a part in the downward trend: ocean conditions, food availability, competition with other fish out in the open ocean, diseases from hatcheries or fish farms and climate change.
Those same types of indicators were cited after the release of the Cohen Commission's final report, which was issued last October after 18 months of testimony and study into the 2009 Fraser sockeye collapse. According to Hill, few, if any, of the 75 recommendations coming out of the report were implemented, which is further exacerbating the issue. "That was $26 million of taxpayer dollars that went into this massive judicial inquiry that took a couple years of everybody's time," Hill said. "Those recommendations came out in October and there's been no official response from the federal government."
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