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Fraser River sockeye run an unusual sight

Fish delay entering Fraser River, but warmer water not harming spawning
terry slack
Fisherman Terry Slack says he’s receiving reports of sockeye jumping in the Fraser River near Vancouver locations. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The sockeye salmon run is booming this month, and Vancouverites have a rare chance to see it in action.

The prized fish are returning en masse to the Fraser River after three years in open water. In early August, the river’s recreational, commercial and aboriginal fisheries opened up, and hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes sought after the costly delicacy in a modern gold rush near Steveston. The “all-citizen fishery” is open to reefnets until Sept. 20.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said this year’s Fraser sockeye run could see as many as 23 million salmon returning to spawn, in the climax to a four-year cycle. Nearly 10 million have been caught so far, but quotas are set to avert overfishing. Mike LaPointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission, a government regulatory body, told the Courier the seine boat fishery is due to close on Sunday and he doubts it will reopen.

For now, locals can witness an unusual spectacle.

“I have people calling me to say there are salmon jumping all round Brock House and Maritime Museum,” said Terry Slack, a fisherman for 65 years.

Added LaPointe: “Reports come in of fish jumping all over the place in False Creek, Point Grey people’s houses in West Vancouver, within English Bay and even north toward Point Atkinson.”

He added that it remains a mystery why fish jump. Some scientists speculate they are trying to shed sea lice, while others say they are trying to get a better viewpoint to navigate by.

If you want to see jumping (or “finning”) fish this week and next, LaPointe suggests standing along Dyke Road in Richmond, or MacDonald Beach north of the airport on the Fraser River’s north arm. There are many other areas along the river, which are all best seen on an incoming tide in the evenings. 

Terry Slack advises going to the North Arm River Trail entrance at the south foot of Balaclava Street (walking east) on the river’s north arm, with the Second Avenue Road bridge for the middle arm, and Steveston’s Garry Point Park for the river’s mouth.

Yet this year’s run is not all routine. This week the commission estimated that between three and six million late-run sockeye may be “delaying” themselves in the lower Strait of Georgia and not entering the Fraser River to spawn upstream.

Slack worried that warmer water might be impairing the spawning journey of the fish. “Historically, I saw them come through the middle arm of the Fraser River near YVR. We thought they would go up the Fraser to New West, but this year they turned around and went back to the ocean. I took the temperature — it was 20 C., which is much too warm.”

The commission acknowledged that in summer, most sockeye faced warmer than average water, and “sustained high water temperatures can cause severe stress to migrating sockeye and may lead to significant en route mortality.” However there were no reports of significant fish deaths in the Fraser to date, and it expects the slower fish to move up by the end of this month.

LaPointe doesn’t think the fish delay has anything to do with warm river temperatures, and the Fraser’s temperature has been dropping “quite dramatically” in the past two weeks anyways. This week at Hope, for example, it was 14.6 C, the average for this time of year.

“The holding patterns in Georgia Strait is a good thing for the fish’s survival,” he added, “because if they come in too early they can pick up diseases that may cause mortality before they spawn.” Early reports from the spawning grounds are excellent, he said, but Slack worries that the delayed fish may become too weary to travel and spawn.

The Pacific Salmon Commission reports daily test fishing catches of sockeye salmon on its website at: psc.org/info_testfishing.htm.  It also posts news releases, fishery regulations, sockeye catch and escapement data, and salmon stock status reports.