With the prospect of yet another year without commercial sockeye fishing in the Fraser River, scientists, ecologists and First Nations members are openly wondering if the fishery will ever recover.
Barry Rosenberger, co-chair of the Pacific Salmon Commission, told The NOW the roughly 2.3 million sockeye that have returned so far are not enough to open the fishery this year.
Though some fish still need to be counted, those numbers translate into a grim outlook for both commercial and recreational sockeye fishing this year.
"There's no one magical number that we look for, but we knew going into this year that if we got to the three million range, we would have likely had commercial fisheries," Rosenberger said. "But as of now, we are not anticipating a commercial or recreational fishery."
Last year, about four million fish returned to spawn, while roughly 25 million came back in 2010.
Though Kwikwetlem First Nation members are permitted to fish for sockeye, band chief Ron Giesbrecht has seen a sharp decline in stocks over the last five years.
In fact, a fishing trip Sunday netted him just shy of 40 fish in a 24-hour period. In the same time period last year, Giesbrecht brought home more than 200.
"A number of other things contribute to the problem, but the water is too warm," he said. "Our temperatures out there in the water are too hot for these fish. It needs to be colder."
Giesbrecht noted sockeye are the most coveted of the five Pacific salmon species for the Kwikwetlem due to the fish's high oil content. He added that his band hasn't even reached half of the yearly quota it is allowed for sockeye.
"When the commercial fisheries don't get an opening what that indicates to us is that there's no fish out there. It's very alarming for us," he said.
Theories abound as to why the sockeye stocks have verged on collapse in recent years. Some point to warmer ocean temperatures; a lack of available food sources; high mortality rates when the fish are still young; and the effect fish farms have had on wild, migratory fish stocks.
Port Coquitlam's Rick Routledge has watched wild sockeye populations decline for close to a decade as part of his field research in Rivers Inlet, an isolated area off B.C.'s central coast.
"It's almost certain there won't be one single factor that we can isolate to explain what's happening, this is a very complicated ecosystem," said Routledge, an ecological statistician at Simon Fraser University. "I don't think we will be able to turn the situation back to the way it was 20 years ago."
Aaron Hill, an ecologist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, suggested both the size of the commercial fleet, and the areas in which those boats are allowed to fish, are areas of concern.
"From my understanding, it's going to be a tough year for commercial fishermen," he said. "It's always a sad day when we can't go out and catch salmon."
Findings from the Cohen Commission, which was set up to investigate the decline in Fraser River sockeye stocks, are slated to be released on Sept. 30.