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Rough waters ahead for B.C.’s sockeye salmon season

Four years after the largest salmon run in a century to swim the Fraser River, one of the hundreds of fishermen who set out earlier this week is optimistic that 2014 will be a good year despite warnings that high water temperatures could pose a risk to many of the 23 million sockeye expected to return.

Roy Jantunen and his daughter Kirsten caught 280 sockeye on Monday afternoon during the three hours they were allowed to keep their nets in the water.

A 40-year veteran of the Fraser River fishery, Mr. Jantunen said the first day was "neither good nor bad."

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Mr. Jantunen, who is based in Richmond, B.C., had some room in the holds of the Finnboy for more fish on Monday, but he is hoping his catch will increase by the end of the month as the bulk of the highly prized salmon swim past his boat.

"You make your living on the sockeye," Mr. Jantunen said on Tuesday. "Sockeye is the fish that everyone talks about; it's the money fish."

Guy Dean, a vice-president of wholesaler Albion Fisheries, said more than 50,000 fish were caught in a week of "fantastic" tests earlier this year. During that same period before the record 2010 haul, only 28,000 fish were caught.

More than 30 million sockeye flooded the Fraser River in 2010.

Some gillnetters reported as many as 600 salmon on ice by the end of Monday's catch, but Mr. Dean said boats in the waters off the Lower Mainland were catching 150 to 400 fish during the three-hour window.

Still, some warn the expectations for this year's run could be misplaced.

The Fraser River Panel cautioned on Tuesday that water temperatures in the river are expected to climb 1.5 degrees to 19.5 C, while water levels further inland at Hope, B.C., were 22 per cent lower than average. The higher temperatures can cause "severe stress" to the fish and a significant number could die during the migration.

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After a few tough seasons in which Canadians imported salmon from Russia, the price of sockeye has already fallen in anticipation of a strong run this year. That may mean lower prices for consumers, but Mr. Dean noted Fraser River sockeye is prized around the world as a high-fat fish and it sustains strong international demand.

The price paid to boats is now $1.50 per pound of sockeye; in the past, the price has fluctuated between $2.50 and $1.

Most of the sockeye Mr. Jantunen and his daughter caught on Monday weighed about six pounds. Kirsten, 24, has been acting as a deckhand since she was five years old, and Mr. Jantunen could need the help. During record years, he says, fishermen can work for as long as 36 hours with little rest, and fingernails can fall off from the constant weight of pulling nets.

But declining yields over much of the past decade mean many fisherman such as Mr. Jantunen are feeling squeezed by competition. Pointing at recreational fishermen, a growing native industry and hungry whales, Mr. Jantunen said the Fraser River industry has increasingly had to rely on bountiful years to get over long dry spells.

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More


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