Pacific sockeye salmon return in record numbers

Sep 09, 2010 by Deborah Jones
Photo courtesy the US Fish & Wildlife Service, shows a salmon swimming up a stream in Alaska. Sockeye salmon, whose stocks ran perilously low last year, are gushing in record numbers from the Pacific Ocean toward their spawning grounds far inland.

After years of scarcity, the rivers of the US and Canadian Pacific Northwest are running red, literally, with a vast swarm of a salmon species considered to be in crisis.

Sockeye salmon, whose stocks ran perilously low last year, are gushing in record numbers from the Pacific Ocean toward their spawning grounds far inland.

Since mid-August, in a torrent expected to last through early October, sockeye have plunged and leapt up Alaskan streams, massed through the mouth of the mighty Fraser River in Vancouver, and filled Oregon and Washington waterways.

"We don't know why for certain," said Barry Rosenberger, a manager with Canada's federal fisheries department.

All experts agree that conditions have been near-perfect for this year's sockeye, a strikingly red species with a dramatic four-year life cycle.

Since they hatched inland in 2006, then migrated from freshwater to the ocean in 2008, the fish enjoyed such plentiful food of krill and plankton, preferred cold ocean temperatures, and a dearth of predators, that massive numbers have matured to return to their birthplaces to spawn and die.

"Salmon have had us on a roller coaster," said marine biologist John Reynolds of Simon Fraser University. "Last year we had the lowest return in at least 50 years, and this year it looks like it will be the highest in nearly a century."

The bounty follows years of intense scarcity that closed or restricted many fishing areas, mostly in Canada where the 2009 near-demise of sockeye in the Fraser River prompted Canada to appoint a commission to investigate.

It began holding public meetings in August just as the massive 2010 return began.

The numbers this year affect Japan and Russia as well as North America, and are shocking: in the United States, an estimated 40 million sockeye entering six Alaskan river systems through Bristol Bay broke all records, Rosenberger told AFP.

The Columbia River in Oregon has seen "the largest sockeye return since 1938," he said, while Japan and Russia are enjoying "phenomenal returns."

But the biggest news is in Vancouver, where the largest sockeye return in nearly a century is entering the mouth of the Fraser River -- arguably the world's single largest historic salmon migration route.

On Tuesday the joint Canada-US Pacific Salmon Commission increased its estimate of Fraser sockeye to 34.5 million fish, while Canada's fisheries department said native, commercial and sports fishers caught some 10.7 million.

Before the local commercial fishery wrapped up Tuesday, the glut overwhelmed local canneries and sent consumer prices plunging by as much as 70 percent to 15 dollars per fish, as people lined up at wharves to buy directly from boats.

The last major Fraser run was some 39 million in 1913 -- before disaster struck at the aptly-named Hell's Gate, 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Vancouver.

After a railroad construction crew sent a rockslide crashing into Hell's Gate, more than 38 million salmon battered themselves to death against the barrier; only about two percent of the run made it through, according to the fisheries department.

The disaster was devastating in a region where salmon are iconic: local aboriginals are known as "people of the salmon."

Explained Rashid Sumaila, director of the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, "everybody (here) has some special attachment to salmon."

Following decades of conservation measures and repairs to migration routes, local residents are now expressing hope.

"These are days of miracle and wonder for those of us who care about the fate of wild salmon," wrote author Stephen Hume in a local newspaper column.

"This is what the river was like every year in the past," Joe Becker, a special commissioner for salmon with the Musqueam Indian Band told AFP from his boat on the Fraser.

"There was this fear hanging on us, maybe this has gone forever -- but maybe they can come back, we haven't lost them," said Sumaila.

Still, no one is calling the bonanza of 2010 the start of a trend.

"Wait to see if it builds up over years before we get confident," said Sumaila.

Explore further: Poachers threaten new slaughter of South African elephants

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Canada's lost salmon found

Aug 25, 2010

Sockeye salmon, which mysteriously vanished last year prompting a government inquiry, are expected to return to Canada's Fraser River this month in numbers not seen since 1913, officials said Wednesday.

Scientists wonder where salmon are

Jul 07, 2005

Biologists and fish and wildlife experts in Washington State say only about 100,000 sockeye salmon have returned to spawn and they want to know why.

Feds vote to halt Calif. chinook salmon fishing

Apr 09, 2009

(AP) -- California's commercial chinook salmon fishing season will be called off again after a record low number of fish returned to spawn last year, federal fisheries managers announced Wednesday.

Salmon fishing season at risk in Calif.

Mar 13, 2008

U.S. officials are considering canceling the 2008 salmon fishing season in California and Oregon because of a dramatic decline in salmon population.

Norway may halt salmon fishing season

Apr 18, 2008

Norwegian wildlife management officials said stocks of wild salmon have dropped so low they may have to halt the salmon fishing season.

Recommended for you

Saving seeds the right way can save the world's plants

8 hours ago

Exotic pests, shrinking ranges and a changing climate threaten some of the world's most rare and ecologically important plants, and so conservationists establish seed collections to save the seeds in banks ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

baudrunner
5 / 5 (1) Sep 09, 2010
Great! Cheap Sockeye! Nothing like a toasted salmon salad sandwich and a pot of tea.
gunslingor1
not rated yet Sep 09, 2010
GREAT NEWS! VERY HAPPY TO HEAR IT! GO PLANET EARTH! DOWN WITH PENNY PINCHING SAFETY IGNORING CORPORATIONS! Do it safely or don't do it!
CarolinaScotsman
not rated yet Sep 10, 2010
Great news. If we can restore the salmon and eliminate the glut of humans, there may be hope for the planet after all.