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B.C. sockeye salmon bounty estimate upped to 30 million

As fishermen haul in massive loads of sockeye salmon, the official estimate of this summer's near-record bounty has been upped to 30 million, the second increase in four days, deepening one of Canada's great scientific mysteries.

It is the most sockeye that have returned to British Columbia's Fraser River in almost a century, and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans responded to the new number Friday afternoon by increasing the total allowable catch for commercial fishermen by more than 60 per cent to 10.2 million sockeye, from 6.2 million on Tuesday.

The bounty is a radical reversal of a two-decade decline and comes after three years of no commercial fishing at all of Fraser River sockeye. Last summer was the most fearsome plunge, when only 1.5 million sockeye came back to the Fraser, a fraction of what was expected. With the spectre of the cod fishery collapse on the East Coast in the early 1990s, B.C.'s disappearing salmon sparked a federal judicial inquiry last fall.

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There are many suspects in that disappearance. Warmer ocean water is believed to have reduced the amount of food for sockeye, and colder water recently might have helped this year's massive run. The proliferation of fish farms on B.C.'s coast has been blamed for spreading sea lice, and other diseases that prey on young sockeye. Other predators, such as sea lions and seals, have been cited.

But most of all, what's been exposed is a prediction model that has completely broken down after years of reliability.

What a typical fish goes through

This summer's surprise abundance of sockeye, a rich red salmon, does not herald a fishery saved. The mystery hasn't been solved, it's deepened. The massive schools of sparkling silver sockeye, bounding through the Georgia Strait and up the Fraser River, indicates how little Canada really understands about the fish, part of B.C.'s economy and wilderness heritage.

The judicial inquiry, led by Mr. Justice Bruce Cohen of the B.C. Supreme Court, will take direct aim at the mystery of the long sockeye decline - including why scientific predictions have ended up so far off the mark. Evidentiary hearings start within weeks, with results due next May.

Whatever conclusion the Cohen commission eventually reaches, B.C.'s sockeye fishermen already have their own: They're just happy to be on the water.

Under a looming thunderstorm as darkness fell on Thursday, boats returned to the docks at Steveston, Canada's largest commercial fishing port, half an hour south of Vancouver. The Magic Maker was one of hundreds of small gillnetters weighed down heavy with sockeye salmon, after a 32-hour fishing window.

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Satoshi "Sugar" Hamada spent the whole time on the water casting his nets for sockeye. "I don't get sleep. I doze off here and there, half an hour maybe," smiled the 75-year-old fisherman.

For decades, pre-season predictions were reliable. They are mostly based on observations from four years earlier of salmon spawning.

Why and how the model has fallen apart is the central mystery.

Pre-season estimates are a median figure based on "50 per cent probability." Numbers are then reaffirmed by test catches during the fishing season, which is where the wild variance has come from. Once in-season data from fishing tests become clearer, the independent Pacific Salmon Commission issues new numbers.

Last year's 50-per-cent probability number was 10.4 million, but just 1.5 million sockeye ultimately returned. This year's 30 million figure is almost triple the pre-season median estimate of 11.4 million. The median had been bounded at extremes by one-in-10 odds of as many as 30 million and as few as five million sockeye.

Various estimates of earlier, smaller sockeye runs this year increased through the summer. But the headline-grabbing increase to 25 million didn't come until Tuesday.

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Scientists stressed the difficulty of forecasting. Sockeye begin life in freshwater streams and lakes in the B.C. Interior and grow up in the dangerous Pacific Ocean before returning to up-river spawning grounds, passing by Vancouver and the populous Fraser Valley on the way out and back. Scientists don't have exact data on to each year's young salmon.

"Just think about all the things that happen in a fish's life," said Mike Lapointe, chief biologist at the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Conditions in the Georgia Strait west of Vancouver seem to be a key to the mystery of broken predictions. The strait is a gauntlet that young sockeye in their smolt stage pass through, vulnerable to predators, the amount of food and the effect of fish farms.

Water temperature, which affects the supply of food, seems particularly important. In turn, climate change is thought to be responsible for those temperature fluctuations. Separately, a cyclical variation in the Pacific Ocean climate called the decadal oscillation could be at work, which may warm water for years. A shift was detected in 2008, with water cooling, just this year's returning sockeye where heading out to the ocean. Some optimists, such as Greg Taylor at fish processor Ocean Fisheries Ltd., say his suppliers continually report "tremendous signs of life."

"The oceans look more alive," Mr. Taylor said.

Right now, there are no conclusive answers why last year was a disaster - and why this year is close to record-breaking.

"It's massively complex, even for a scientist," said John Reynolds, a fish biologist at Simon Fraser University.

While the mystery is far from solved, there are ready options to help fix the system. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has to try to understand the life of a sockeye as it leaves the Fraser and heads to the Pacific, said Brian Riddell, president of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, formerly a top scientist for West Coast salmon at the department.

It's a question of money but he said a small 2008 survey by the department on this year's sockeye heading to ocean gave a hint of the big numbers returning now. More monitoring would add valuable data.

Still, jarring swings could be the new normal.

"It's going to continue to be quite variable," Mr. Riddell said. "We will expect to see these extreme events. It will be difficult to deal with."

In-season monitoring has to be improved too, said Carl Walters, a professor at University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre. Government conducts test catches each summer provide data for the salmon commission to make up-to-date estimates such as the new 30-million number. Prof. Walters call the government management a "comedy of errors" and called for a major improvement in test catches, so commercial fishing doesn't end up happening in wild 32-hour bursts.

Hardly any fishermen rely on the industry for a full-time job and processing capacity has disappeared alongside the sockeye. In the early 1990s, a big sockeye catch was worth $150-million coming off the boats - and much more after processing, and even more on store shelves. In recent years it has fallen to less than $10-million. Even this year's haul might only be worth $100-million to fishermen.

"There's no future in fishing," said Mr. Hamada, a man who has fished for almost six decades.

"Something like this, we'll never see it again," said Scott McClenaghan, 58, who has a larger seine boat that has hauled 18,000 sockeye out of the Johnstone Strait, northwest of Vancouver, on two trips this month and is set to go again.

As for predictions, Mr. McClenaghan laughs. "You'll never really know unless you swim four years with the fish out to the ocean and back."

Sockeye, by the numbers

$114-million: Wholesale value of sockeye catch in B.C. in the most recent big year, 2006

$400-million+: Potential wholesale value of this year's large catch

$135-million: Wholesale value of all species of salmon in B.C. in 2009

$495-million: Wholesale value of farmed salmon in B.C. in 2009

38 million: Number of sockeye in 1913

30 million: Number of sockeye in 2010

1.5 million: Number of sockeye in 2009

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

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