It's early yet, but the first forecast of the season indicates that sockeye salmon will return this summer in healthy numbers to British Columbia's Fraser River.
About 11.4 million sockeye are expected to swim up the river this summer, analysts at the Pacific Salmon Commission say. Around two-thirds of those - more than seven million - will be heading to the fabled Adams River spawning grounds in south central B.C., about 60 kilometres east of Kamloops.
The forecast indicates salmon will be available for aboriginal, sport and commercial fisheries in August without compromising the sustainability of the runs.
"It would be a good run size, not a great run, but it would be decent fishing for everyone," said Phil Eidsvik, a commercial fisherman and outspoken member of the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition.
"But, and it is a big but, salmon forecasts have been notoriously inaccurate for some 15 years. So we will believe the fish is there when the fish show up in the river," he said. "Nobody is going to be running out, buying new nets and boats, not until we see some fish show up."
Mike Lapointe, chief biologist at the salmon commission, said the analysts are hesitant to be too optimistic after the past few seasons. The salmon commission last year had forecast 10.4 million salmon, but only 1.5 million showed up.
"We're all waiting to see what comes back," he said. "Last year was very disappointing. ... Obviously that has tempered our expectations for this coming year."
The federal Cohen commission is currently studying the decline of sockeye runs on the Fraser River. Evidentiary hearings are scheduled to begin in September.
Meanwhile, an independent adjudicator Monday upheld certification of the Fraser River salmon fishery as "sustainable" by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. Three B.C. environmental groups in February filed an objection to the certification. The adjudicator's decision clears the way for the MSC's ecolabel - for sustainable fisheries - on Fraser River salmon. The MSC certified three other B.C. salmon runs this month.
The Pacific Salmon Commission tracks four different groups that move up the Fraser at different times. The flow of early Stuart sockeye is expected to peak this week, followed by the early summer sockeye, the summer sockeye and the late-run sockeye.
The current forecast is grounded in historical analysis of the salmon that spawned in the river and its tributaries four years ago. The figures are revised as the salmon begin to show up.
Late last week, the commission revised the estimate of Early Stuart upward to 110,000, from a preseason forecast of 41,000. However, the run is not yet strong enough to open a fishery, Mr. Lapointe said. The run should exceed 200,000 before a fishery is opened, he said.
The Sto:lo Tribal Council is ready to begin fishing this week for Early Stuart, especially after hearing that the estimate shot up to 110,000 salmon. Ernie Crey, the council's fisheries adviser, said the Early Stuart run was looking "really good," and several Sto:lo elders and families are anxious to start sockeye fisheries at 15 or more stations near Yale, B.C.
They could be out in the Fraser Canyon catching and wind drying the sockeye they require for their winter larders, he said. Drying conditions are ideal and pests that can ruin a catch are absent.
Tyrone McNeil, a tribal chief and vice-president of the council, said the so-called dry-rack fishery would take up to 5,000 salmon. "It's not going to have an impact on the run whatsoever," he said. "We're chomping at the bit, on the beaches, all ready to set out nets and hang the fish. We just need the green light."
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued fishing licences based on the recommendations of the Pacific Salmon Commission. So far, the Sto:lo have not received federal approval for the dry-rack fishery. The Fisheries Department did not respond Monday to a request for an interview.
With a report from Wendy Stueck