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The return of salmon to some small Metro Vancouver streams – that have been the focus of habitat restoration work in recent years – is a good sign this fall.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Although spawning salmon are still returning to British Columbia's rivers – including some, surprisingly, to urban streams – early returns indicate another troubling year, despite some bright spots.

"It really is a mixed bag this year," said Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation. "How the heck can we sum it up? I'd say it's the good, the bad and the mysterious."

There were good sockeye salmon returns to the Great Central Lake system on Vancouver Island and to the Nass River on the North Coast, he said.

But contrasting that were very poor returns on the Fraser River, where only about two million sockeye returned, far short of the more than six million predicted in preseason forecasts. Even more dramatic was the collapse of the pink salmon on the Fraser, with only about five million fish showing up when more than 14 million had been forecast.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans declined to provide a spokesperson to talk about the salmon runs, saying it is too early to have firm numbers.

But Dr. Riddell said it is possible at this point to paint a broad picture, and the indication is that some stocks are in serious trouble.

One mystery, he said, is what happened to all those pink salmon that were supposed to return to the Fraser River.

Dr. Riddell said test fisheries in the Georgia Strait in the summer showed a strong run of pink salmon coming in, but then, in what should have been the middle of the run, the fish just stopped arriving.

"With test fisheries, people will typically use a bell curve [to project the size of the run]," he said. "We had roughly 40 per cent of the run in and it was on track with the curve, and then literally within two days it disappeared. It just crashed. … I have never ever seen, nor can I explain, a test fishery like that. The fish are coming in and you are following the proper pattern as they have for years and years, and then they suddenly just disappear. And we have not accounted for them."

He said millions of fish that should have been coming in the second half of the run just didn't materialize.

Dr. Riddell said one thing that has been encouraging this fall is the return of salmon to some small Metro Vancouver streams that have been the focus of habitat restoration work in recent years.

This week, chum salmon were seen in both Still and Guichon creeks, which run through busy urban landscapes, under major highways and past massive parking lots.

Dr. Riddell said when salmon spawn in places like that, it is a reminder that the fish are capable of bouncing back if they get decent habitats. Both of those streams were once badly polluted, but water quality has improved and fishways were put in to allow salmon to get upstream.

"These really are resilient animals," he said. "Sometimes I say salmon have survived despite us."

Nick Page, a biologist with the Vancouver Park Board, said there are several streams in Vancouver that have been restored or are slated for work in the near future, including Beaver Creek in Stanley Park and Hastings Creek in Hastings Park.

Greg Taylor, of Fish First Consulting Ltd., said the poor returns in B.C. this year are a reminder that more needs to be done to protect salmon and their habitat.

"If we are not going to go the way of Washington, Oregon and California [where salmon stocks have been decimated], then we need to adopt precautionary management. We need to implement the Cohen Commission recommendations and we need more funding for DFO," he said. "If we don't do those things, we are risking our salmon."

In 2012, then-B.C. Supreme Court justice Bruce Cohen completed a $35-million inquiry into the collapse of sockeye stocks in the Fraser River. His report's recommendations were never implemented by the federal government.