Feast or Famine for Pacific Salmon

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by John Buchanan

Feast or Famine for Pacific Salmon. One year rivers on the West Coast of Canada seem to be empty of salmon, the next they are so full commercial boats are being allowed to drop their nets in the estuaries.

So what gives? Is there a shortage of salmon on the Pacific Coast, or a great abundance?

The complicated answer – and there are no easy answers when it comes to salmon – is that both conditions often exist at the same time and in the same place.

The Fraser River, which winds down from the British Columbia interior to empty into the Pacific through the heart of Metro Vancouver, is a case in point.

In August of 2013 there were so few sockeye salmon in the Fraser that all fishing – sport, native and commercial – was banned.

But by September there were so many pink salmon entering the river – an estimated 26 million – that commercial fish processing plants were overwhelmed and sports anglers were talking about 30 and 40 salmon days.

Scientists say the massive return of one species – pinks – coming on the heels of a disastrous run of another – sockeye – is linked to a dramatic shift in ocean conditions.

And it may point to big runs of chum and sockeye returning in 2014, to be followed by a big Chinook run in 2015.

Potlatch Creek

Potlatch Creek

For some people the sudden pulse of pink salmon raised questions about the possible role of a controversial experiment that took place in 2012, when the Haida Salmon Restoration Corp. dumped iron material in the ocean, stimulating plankton growth.

To some that ocean fertilization experiment was reckless science at its worst and amounted to polluting the seas. But supporters are saying, hey, it sparked a plankton bloom and then more salmon came back. So let’s do some science and figure out if the two are linked.

Dr. Jim Irvine, a research scientist at the federal government’s Pacific Biological Station on Vancouver Island, is one of those who is skeptical that the Haida experiment had anything to do with the big pink returns.

More likely, he says, is that the ocean was enriched by several natural events, all of which lined up perfectly in 2012 to give salmon a boost in survival rates that summer.

“Basically ocean conditions for the last several years have been cool. But 2012 were particularly cool so one would expect the smolts that went to sea in 2012 would do relatively well and so that means you’d expect the pink salmon and coho salmon that return in 2013 would do relatively well, compared to previous years…That effect would be delayed for one more year for sockeye and most chum and Chinook maybe one year after that. It’s always complicated,” he said.

Dr. Richard Beamish, an Emeritus Scientist at the Pacific Biological Station points out that several factors were favourable to salmon in 2012.

“We had a period of warm weather in April, we had good flows from the Fraser and enough wind just prior to the warm weather to bring the [ocean] nutrients up to mix with the surface water,” he said. “We would have had just exceptional plankton production and it was perfectly timed for salmon entering the Strait of Georgia.”

In other words, said Dr. Beamish, 2012 had all the right conditions to produce a bumper crop.

“You need a combination of the appropriate Fraser River flows, sunshine, optimal plankton production,” he said. “This year and last year we’ve had really good conditions for food production. And I think we’ll see that [reflected in salmon production] in the next few years.”

He also noted that pink salmon runs that come back on odd numbered years have been doing well all over the Pacific.

“They have been increasing in abundance since about 1990, so for two decades now,” he says. “The even numbered year pink salmon…are doing ok but they aren’t increasing in abundance like the odd numbered years. And there isn’t a scientist that can explain it….one idea is that the salmon that spawn in odd numbered years are essentially different genetically.”

Jeff Grout, Pacific region salmon manager for the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans, confirmed that there were huge runs of pink salmon all along the British Columbia coast in 2013, from the Fraser in the south to the Nass River, near the Alaska Panhandle, north of Prince Rupert.

Mr. Grout didn’t have data on the run sizes when he was interviewed, but did say the commercial catches had been extremely large. In a fishery near the Nass the fleet took two million pink salmon; off the Kitimat River the catch was five million.

Off the mouth of the Fraser, 1.3 million pinks were caught in the first few days of an opening, which was then closed because of concerns about coho and sockeye that are also migrating through.

Ken Kirkby, an artist who has been working to restore salmon runs in Nile Creek on Vancouver Island, said so many pinks returned to his little stream that it was staggering.

“The fish poured in here in such numbers that the sea was a sparkling diamond,” he said.

“You can’t see the bottom of the river for the salmon.”

Feast or Famine

McNab Creek

One of the biggest surprises has been in the Squamish River, where so many fish returned that four commercial seine boats were allowed to set nets near the mouth for the first time in decades. They caught 300,000 salmon in two days.

Jonn Matsen, coordinator of the Squamish Streamkeepers, a non-profit group that for years has been working to restore salmon habitat, said the number of fish in the river was astonishing.

“It’s startling . . .There’s a ridiculous number of pinks. It’s a thousand times more than there should be,” he said.

Dr. Matsen added that small streams in the area that historically hadn’t had pink runs, were getting salmon into them for the first time – an apparent case of salmon wandering or prospecting for new places to spawn when their home river was filled up.

Whatever is causing the salmon run to flourish one thing is abundantly clear: a river full of salmon is a wondrous sight.

And if the fish scientists are right, what anglers saw with pink runs in 2013 will be repeated with sockeye and chum runs in 2014 and Chinook in 2015.

Which makes it a good time to plan a trip to British Columbia.