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Fraser River sockeye returns predicted to be dismal — again — this summer

Sockeye returns are predicted to be so low this summer on the Fraser River that they won’t support a commercial or recreational fishery.

The Pacific Salmon Commission said Friday that the four-year cycle for this year’s sockeye runs has generated an average 3.9 million fish over the past half century, well above the 2.27 million fish anticipated to return this season. It is a median prediction, meaning that half the time the run could be higher and half the time lower.

“We don’t want to hide the uncertainty,” commission chief biologist Mike Lapointe said. “These forecasts are based on the number of fish that spawned four years ago. There’s a lot of stuff that happens in four years.”

This marks the third time in four years in which Fraser River sockeye returns have been a washout. “Unfortunately, it’s not as rare as we’d like it to be,” Lapointe said.

Several reasons are to blame for this summer’s dismal situation, including low spawning escapements four years ago and poor survival related to warm ocean conditions.

“Unusually warm ocean temperatures, now referred to as the ‘warm blob’, were observed in the central northeast Pacific Ocean throughout 2014 and 2015,” the commission said in a news release.

“Warm temperatures of this magnitude and duration have not been observed in over 50 years.”

Due in part to early run-off from a warm spring, Fraser River flows are forecast to be at or below historic minimum levels during the sockeye migration. But cooler air temperatures more recently could actually benefit the fish.

First Nations get first crack at the returning Fraser sockeye for food, social and ceremonial reasons once spawning and conservation objectives have been met. First Nations may fall short of their anticipated allocation of about 1.1 million fish by 100,000 to 200,000 fish, Lapointe said.

The U.S. is anticipated to catch about 100,000 fish under the international treaty, with treaty groups taking two-thirds of that amount, he added.

Sockeye returns have been much better in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver, including those fish returning to the Somass River.

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