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Record sockeye run strains fish-processing capacity

Commercial fishing boats offload their catch of sockeye salmon at Steveston Harbour following a 32-hour fishery window in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday August 26, 2010.

DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/ The Globe and Mail

Thirty million sockeye salmon are making their way back to the Fraser River, rivalling the great run of 1913, the Pacific Salmon Commission is expected to announce on Friday.

The latest update is based on field reports, including a test fishery near Port McNeill on Thursday that pulled in an unheard-of catch of almost 100,000 sockeye salmon. Those fish are still a week away from reaching the river.

After the near-collapse of the sockeye returns last year, the unexpected bounty has stretched the capacity of fishermen and processors this week after the commission changed its forecast to 25 million from 11.4 million.

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Based on the growing numbers, the first major commercial fishery on the Fraser in four years will likely be extended next week. But the overriding question is whether B.C.'s fishing industry still has the capacity to process such a monumental harvest.

"Increasing the allowable catch is a moot point," said MP John Cummins, a commercial fisherman. His vessel was out on Wednesday and Thursday for a 32-hour opening on the Fraser. Processors are trucking in ice from Vancouver Island and working around the clock, he noted.

The Pacific Salmon Commission is expected to update its numbers on Friday afternoon. Jeff Grout, regional resource manager for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said an increased forecast will likely result in a new harvesting plan. "We would be immediately announcing fishing plans on Friday."

The DFO will be under pressure from some sectors to raise the allowable harvest because of the strength of this year's return. Mr. Cummins predicted more openings for a commercial fishery, but he isn't sure where those fish will go.

"I'm sure the department is going to increase the allowable catch, but it may be to no avail - there simply aren't going to be the buyers and the prices will drop further," Mr. Cummins said. "The local fresh market is saturated."

Twenty years ago, the B.C. fishing industry could have absorbed such a bonanza, but steady declines in the salmon catch have taken their toll. Mr. Cummins noted that his own fish boat has been plagued with mechanical problems. "It's harder on a piece of equipment to sit idle than it is to use it."

Brian Riddell, president and CEO of the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation, which works to improve salmon habitat and enhance salmon populations, said keeping the current limit on this year's run shouldn't be a hardship.

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"It's almost academic now," he said. "You could probably fish harder with the numbers you are seeing … but the reality is you might not be able to process them."

In 1913, before railway development and a major rockslide permanently altered the course of the Fraser River, an estimated 38 million Sockeye returned to spawn - and 31 million of them were harvested.

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B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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