Huge Salmon Runs Forecast

Story by Mark Hume with photography by Nick Didlick

If you want to catch a Pacific salmon your top choice would normally be Alaska. After that you would look at British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

But 2014 is not shaping up to be a normal year, and for the first time in maybe ever, B.C. is looking like the best place to be for salmon, with the Columbia River, which enters the Pacific near the Washington-Oregon border, looking pretty hot too with huge salmon runs forecast.

The signals are coming in early season forecasts, which get better as you head south from Alaska, when the opposite is usually true.

run1

“Anglers can’t expect to celebrate king salmon catches in the Kenai River this summer,” Alaska Dispatch reported in January. “A catastrophic return of late-run king salmon to the Kenai River is being forecast for this summer by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.”

The article states that “the run might not meet minimum escapement goals even if no fish are caught in the in-river fishery,” with a projected return of just 19,000 fish – the lowest in 29 years.

In its good days the Kenai River had runs of 50,000 to 60,000 chinook, so by those standards this year is looking dismal.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has more promising projections for sockeye, with 27 million expected to return to Bristol Bay. But that is 30 % lower than the previous 10-year mean of total runs.

According to state biologists, sockeye returns will be down dramatically in some rivers (Alagnak, -35 %; Togiak, -20%) but up in others, such as the Igushik (61%) and Egegik (33%).

It should be noted that Bristol Bay’s long term average is 32 million sockeye and for seven consecutive years (from 2004-2010) the runs exceeded 40 million fish. So even if 27 million sockeye sounds like a lot (and it is) by Bristol Bay standards it is looking bad.

Meanwhile, in B.C., the department of Fisheries and Oceans is predicting the Fraser River will have the biggest run in recorded history.

Les Jantz, DFO’s acting area director for the B.C. Interior, said the early forecast covers a wide range from a low of 7.3 million sockeye to a high of 72.5 million.

DFO has been burned a few times over the years by predicting numbers that just didn’t materialize. The department’s approach now is to give a wide range, in an early forecast, and then focus the data as the season progresses and the first catches begin to come in.run2

In 2010, DFO used that approach and found the final result – about 29 million fish – was at the high end of its early season forecast. The progeny of that run, which was the biggest in about 100 years, is coming back in 2014. And DFO researchers say they tracked record numbers of smolts exiting the Fraser from the 2010 brood. Those young fish encountered prime conditions when they entered the ocean. The water was cold and there were high concentrations of zooplankton and phytoplankton.

“We’re always cautious. That’s built into our system,” said Mr. Jantz. “But it’s certainly looking good. . . I think there’s going to be a lot of fish out there.”

Rollie Rose, a guide and President of Sooke Salmon Charters Ltd., said in March he attended a meeting where “9 senior DFO science staff” gave a presentation, which included a forecast on the coming season.

“The news could not be better!!” Mr. Rose said in an email after that event. “Their words were something like . . . you will see fishing this year better than you have seen in your lifetime.”

Wilf Luedke, DFO’s chief of stock assessment on B.C.’s south coast, was more restrained when asked about it, but he admitted he is starting to get a little excited about the big run that may be coming.

“We’re expecting improvements in almost every river,” he said. “This year it looks like it will be OK – and possibly amazing.”

And he said the numbers are up not just for sockeye, but for Chinook and coho too.run3

And out of Washington State comes a forecast that points to a great season ahead on the Columbia River, with fishery managers predicting a return of nearly three million Chinook and coho.

“It’s a mind-boggling forecast, and the largest fall chinook return since at least 1938,” Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist states in the Seattle Times.

So there you go – a massive run of sockeye is expected into the Fraser, perhaps the biggest in history, and the biggest runs of Chinook and coho to the Columbia in 80 years.

Of course, the returns may not materialize – but if the early predictions hold, this is the summer and fall to be fishing in B.C. and Washington for salmon.

And we can only hope the ocean conditions that have combined to produce this banner run will also give us great steelheading in the fall. Stay tuned.