Four years after a salmon run so disastrous it sparked a federal inquiry, fisheries managers are watching with concern as sockeye trickle into the Fraser in lower numbers and later in the season than anticipated.
Uncertain how many more fish might be coming and worried about warm water in the river, fisheries managers have allowed no commercial or sport harvest of sockeye in the Fraser so far this season. First Nations have been greatly limited in their catches.
Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission, said the Fraser's sockeye run is about half over – and it is either going to be much smaller than forecast, or a lot of fish will be arriving late. The run size forecast early in the season was 4.7 million sockeye – but as of last week only about 824,000 had been counted.
This year's fish are the progeny of the 2009 run, which was among the smallest on record, with only about one million sockeye returning when about 10 million had been expected.
Over the past week, there have been some positive signs on the Fraser, however, with one early stock getting upgraded from an estimated 400,000 fish to 452,000. And the Pitt River, a tributary on the lower Fraser, is having a much stronger run than anticipated with nearly 200,000 sockeye returning, not 15,000 as forecast.
Mr. Lapointe said it will be a week or two before the picture is clear, but a big concern is the "summer-run" group, which makes up the bulk of the Fraser's stock. Although 3.7 million were forecast to return, only 284,000 of the summer-run group had come in by last week.
"There is definitely more coming. The question is, how many?" said Mr. Lapointe, who hopes the summer-run stock will yet come in close to the forecast.
He said despite the slow start, the Fraser's run is expected to be stronger than it was in 2009. "With luck, we will see some rebuilding from 2009, so that's a positive," Mr. Lapointe said.
The Fraser sockeye-run collapse in 2009 was so shocking the federal government called a judicial inquiry, the Cohen Commission. Last year, the commission issued a report with 75 recommendations for management on the river, but the government has not yet acted on the findings.
The low returns in the Fraser this summer, combined with poor sockeye runs on British Columbia's north coast and reduced catches in Alaska, mean consumer prices are likely to rise.
Aaron Murray said that usually by this point of the summer, commercial boats are pulling in fresh Fraser sockeye, filling the market demand just as the catch from Alaska and northern B.C. tails off.
But Mr. Murray, a fourth-generation fisherman whose family owns 10 gillnet boats and who run Bruce's Country Market, a specialty wild salmon store in Maple Ridge, said he doubts there will be any commercial fishing at all on the Fraser this year. "If you had to put any money on it, you'd say definitely not," he said.
He said the shortage of supply means the price of sockeye is likely to go up. "Relative to last year, prices are going to be a $1 a pound more," he said. "You can't say for sure, but that would be my guess."
Mr. Murray's store currently features fresh sockeye caught in a government-sanctioned "test fishery" on the Fraser, but he has been busy this week lining up purchases of frozen Alaska sockeye to stock the shelves later in the season.