Positive outlook for British Columbia salmon returns in 2014

Jeremy Maynard / Campbell River Courier Islander
November 30, 2013 11:19 AM

It’s a bit hard to believe in the first few days of December but the reality is the south coast of BC is undergoing something of a seasonal drought. Light rain has just started as I’m writing these words and it is supposed to rain a little over the coming weekend, but even before this column is in print the dry weather is forecast to reassert itself for a couple of weeks.

Doubtless a fair number of people hereabouts are delighted with this prospect but I’m not one of them. The reason is simple — the salmon resource could take a real knock if rain doesn’t come soon and this is especially so in smaller watersheds. If it hasn’t happened already, there is a genuine danger that eggs layed down in the gravel recently will no longer have sufficient water flowing over them to keep them alive.

 Even the more developed salmon eggs that have reached the eyed stage, primarily from pink salmon, and which can survive more challenging conditions, will be in jeopardy if the temperatures get well below freezing as they are forecast to do. It will be a cruel irony if significant losses to the salmon resource occur from lack of water at a time of year when more usually the hope is for the rain to stop.

 In keeping with a practice now several years old, at the end of last week DFO released the first version of what is called the Salmon Outlook for the upcoming year. To use a modern phrase this is a “living document”, subject to change, as information becomes better known over time. All the same it is useful in that the Outlook provides the first informed look ahead.

 The 2014 Outlook is comprised of 91 units, stock groupings of a single salmon species with a similar geographic and run-timing characteristic in the Pacific region (BC and Yukon), ranked on a scale from 1– 4 (Stock of concern, low, near target and abundant). Given the diversity of individual river salmon stocks even within these unit groupings, some units have a split ranking to show expected differences, e.g. 2/3 or 1/4. To no surprise, 28 of the units are expected to be of some conservation concern, however DFO notes that “overall, the outlook for 2014 has improved relative to the previous outlook”.

 Likely for the first time since this annual document came into existence, the latest version states no coho units declined. Importantly for the south coast recreational fishery, four of the five coho units with an improved rating contribute fish to it and once again the only non-sockeye salmon unit ranked as an unambiguous 4 is the WCVI coho unit. The description reads “ There were abundant spawners in 2011 and the marine indicators for the 2013 sea entry year are positive. Therefore, the outlook for 2014 is for an abundant return.” Doesn’t get any better than that!

 Elsewhere around southern BC the language associated with coho units is more nuanced but the trend is generally positive or at least stable at a lower abundance.

 The picture for chinook salmon is more complicated, reflecting the greater diversity of freshwater life-history types, marine distribution patterns and run-timing characteristics that this species has. Unfortunately there is no widespread improvement for Fraser stream-type chinook, all three units of which remain ranked at 1. Despite some encouraging signs of increased returns in 2013 for some individual stocks, overall the brood years (parental generation) for the 2014 return were some of the lowest on record and it’ll be some years before these fish rebuild even in the most favourable of circumstances.

 More encouraging is the forecast for the Fraser summer-run, ocean-type chinook stock, which is ranked a category 3 for 2014. These fish, which head to sea in the spring/summer following their birth, had been on a steadily increasing trend for two decades peaking at record levels in the years 2009/11. In 2012 this stock tanked big time however “aggregate escapement in 2013 recovered sharply” according to the recent Outlook so “if favourable marine conditions experienced by the 2009 brood (2013 return) continue, abundance should be high based on parental levels.”

 This chinook stock is a big contributor to fisheries wherever they are found and in the readership area of this newspaper are the stubby-nosed fish frequently encountered mid-summer in the straits between northeast Vancouver Island and the mainland — for example, they can be big contributors to the Stuart Island area fishery.

 Over on the west coast of Vancouver Island the ongoing difference in abundance between hatchery and wild stocks continues. Smaller unenhanced populations remain depressed and remain stuck in a category 1 ranking, however the 2014 forecast for the hatchery stocks has moved to a 3/4. While the expected return to the Robertson Creek hatchery (Stamp River) is less strong, prospects look good for returns to the Nitinat and Conuma River hatcheries. The age–three chinook return to the Nootka Sound area was very strong in 2013 so that bodes well for age-four fish from the same brood year in 2014 — twenty-something fish o’plenty!

 Another WCVI salmon stock forecast to have a big return are the sockeye headed back to the Stamp/Somass watershed. Ranked a category 4, fishing success will depend on the river levels next summer but based on the minimal accumulation of snow on the surrounding high ground to date the sockeye are likely to school in the inlet for some time.

 Various sockeye stocks originating from the Fraser River have been ranked a category 4 in the 214 Salmon Outlook. 2010, the dominant contributing brood year for the 2014 return, famously saw the “biggest return in a century” so hopes are high for a repeat and unless the overall return is far below expectations sockeye fishing outside Barclay Sound all around the south coast seems a certainty.

 Perhaps at a later date I’ll review the pink and chum Salmon Outlook rankings but based on the initial version there’s much to look forward to for chinook, coho and sockeye in summer fishing season 2014! 

 


© Copyright 2015 Campbell River Courier Islander

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