ECONOMY: Sockeye salmon disaster amid low water levels, hot weather

Vancouver Sun 2004

Fisheries officials and environmentalists are worried that hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon did not reach their spawning grounds in northern British Columbia.

They say that low water levels and higher than normal temperatures in the Fraser River killed fish or made them lethargic and easy to catch by hand from boats. In some cases, only one in ten fish survived the trip upriver. “A lot of the fish that passed Mission are not arriving at the spawning ground,” says Paul MacGillivray, acting regional director for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He cautioned that fish counts are still ongoing. “But there’s enough information to show there’s a real concern.”

Others are calling it the worst environmental disaster of the year, meaning fewer salmon and higher prices in future. “It looks pretty grim. The returns are really really bad,” says Ken Malloway, co-chair of the B.C. Aboriginal Fisheries Commission, who met with federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan in Kamloops Sunday. “It’s probably the worst year I’ve seen. Some are saying it’s the worst in 50 years. Four years from now there could be little or no fishing going on by anybody.” 

Terry Glavin, author of books on fishing issues and marine conservation adviser for the Sierra Club, calls it a “disaster” that wipes out a half-century of efforts to rebuild the salmon fishery. “I don’t know what greater a disaster can befall us to wake us up”. 

DFO could not provide numbers for the fishery as a whole. But in one series of counts of the completed Early Stuart Run, less than 10,000 of the expected number of 90,000 sockeyes reached spawning grounds, said Don Radford, DFO’s regional director of fisheries management. Counts are often done by aerial survey, fence counts, or by officers walking into streams, he said. Though this number is only a small portion of the four
or five million sockeyes going up the river, Radford said it’s cause for concern, because river temperatures in August of 20 to 21 Celsius were
“lethal” for sockeyes, who prefer 18 C or less. “You could reach out a boat and catch a live fish with your bare hands. That’s how lethargic they were.” He said he saw pictures from DFO field workers showing sockeyes with open sores and infected or eroded gills. “It’s like having a lung infection, you just can’t breathe.”

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