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Spawning sockeye salmon make their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park. Last year, about four million fish were expected (after 3.8 million spawned four years earlier) but only 700,000 returned.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's iconic Adams River salmon run, a spectacular natural event that has become an international magnet for tourism drawing up to 250,000 visitors a year, appears to have collapsed.

Instead of 1.2 million fish, as was hoped for in preseason forecasts, only about 3,000 sockeye have returned to the river, which flows into Shuswap Lake, about 75 kilometres northeast of Kamloops.

Lara Sloan, communications adviser for the department of Fisheries and Oceans, said DFO is reluctant to answer questions about the situation on the Adams River.

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"We don't want to speculate or provide early observations – we need to wait until all of the data is in to provide a complete picture," she said in an e-mail.

But Jim Cooperman, president of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society, said the spawning beds, many of which have viewing platforms where visitors can usually take pictures of massive schools of bright-red salmon, are empty this fall. The run peaks in mid-October and it is unlikely more fish will arrive now.

"It's pretty grim here at the Adams River," he said on Wednesday. "We're supposed to have quite a few salmon. It's supposed to be the next largest run [in the cycle] and only 3,000 salmon showed up. There were quite a few Chinook, but, I mean, it's sockeye that are our iconic species, and it's quite depressing here really."

Sockeye spawn every year, then die. Because the fish mature at four years of age, the runs are on a cycle, which means each one usually reflects the progenitor run that occurred four years before.

Last year, about four million fish were expected (after 3.8 million spawned four years earlier) but only 700,000 returned. This year's run was expected to number at least 200,000 based on 2011 returns, and early forecasts predicted as many as 1.2 million fish. At 3,000 spawners, it is the worst return ever on that cycle; the next lowest year was 1939, when 16,000 fish came back.

Mr. Cooperman said the small return represents "a very frightening crash," and two successive poor years should set off alarm bells.

"Could salmon being going the way of Atlantic cod under the leadership of Fisheries and Oceans Canada? Is that where we are headed?" he asked.

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Mr. Cooperman said it is not clear what has happened to the salmon, but B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, who in 2012 completed an investigation into the collapse of sockeye in the Fraser River system, which includes the Adams River, pointed to an array of problems and made 75 recommendations.

"It could be climate change, it could be fish farms. The Cohen commission recommended all kinds of things but [none were acted on by Ottawa]. Of course, now we have a government that might pay attention, but it could be too late," Mr. Cooperman said.

Greg Taylor of FishFirst Consulting Ltd., said concerns are also being raised about sockeye returning to B.C. rivers on the north coast because the fish have been so small.

"The Nass River sockeye came in relatively good [numbers] … however, they came in about one pound lighter [on average]. So there's something going on in the ocean … they are normally about six pounds there, but they were coming in at five pounds. This is unheard of. We've never seen those sockeye that size," he said.

Mr. Taylor said one theory is that hatcheries in Alaska are pumping out so many fish that by the time B.C. sockeye migrate into the Gulf of Alaska, where they feed during early life stages, food is running short.

"Some feel these small fish we are seeing and the poor runs [to the Adams River] … could be found in that cause," he said.

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