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With biggest salmon run in nearly a century, hope returns to the Fraser

Fishermen are scrambling to their boats to cash in on what is pegged as the strongest sockeye run on the Fraser in almost a century - just as an inquiry into last year's collapse of that run gets under way.

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea has been in B.C. this week and said the excitement she's seen in fishing communities is palpable. "Everybody is abuzz about the great return of the Fraser sockeye," she said in an interview on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, the Pacific Salmon Commission revised its estimates, predicting 25 million sockeye are bound for the Fraser River this summer. That is more than double the early summer forecast, making it the best run since 1913.

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Ms. Shea stressed, however, that it doesn't mean the salmon crisis is over.

"We're welcoming this with cautious optimism," she said, but the unexpected bonanza also raises fresh questions to be answered by the Cohen Commission inquiry about what is influencing these unexpected variations.

This year was expected to be the peak of a four-year cycle and the pressure for commercial fishermen to take advantage of the run is intense, because it could be their only chance to make some money before the salmon numbers dwindle again.

"It's exceptional, this is a great run," said Phil Eidsvik, a commercial fisherman and spokesman for the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition.

Mr. Eidsvik will be climbing aboard his gillnetter on the Fraser River early Wednesday morning and expects to have his first set in the water by noon. "We'll fish for 36 hours straight - it's a brutal shift."

The Pacific Salmon Commission revised its forecast based on jaw-dropping results from test fisheries in Johnstone Strait.

A fishing boat off Campbell River last week was hauling in salmon by the tens of thousands, including one day where the catch added up to 84,000 fish. "That's the highest test results ever recorded in the history of British Columbia," Mr. Eidsvik noted. Usually a test catch of 500 fish would be cause for celebration among commercial fishermen.

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But he cautions that, amid the excitement, concerns about the management of the fishery remain.

"We're going to find a huge number of fish. The trick is, will we get to fish them? There aren't enough days in the week."

In a year of abundance, the tensions between different interest groups - commercial, aboriginal and recreational - are heightened.

Carl Walters, a fisheries expert from the University of B.C.'s zoology department, said Ms. Shea could reduce the conflict by allowing a greater share of the salmon to be caught this year.

"What is truly shocking is not that the run is large, but rather that DFO apparently does not plan to allow high harvest rates. There could be a huge waste of fish," he said, with river conditions so crowded that millions of fish may perish without spawning.

Ms. Shea said she is prepared to look at changing the harvest targets - set at 30 per cent of the total returns - as the run progresses. "Once our conservation objectives have been met, yes of course it could change our fishing plans."

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Dr. Walters said the cause of the higher-than-expected run is a mystery. "Perhaps they did exceptionally well because they reared in an ocean that had very few Fraser sockeye last year so there was an unusual accumulation of food. We will never know for sure."

Ms. Shea said it is a reminder that "Mother Nature is still in charge."

Meanwhile, the Cohen Commission is travelling the province, investigating last year's disastrous return of just one million salmon.

Carla Shore, a spokesperson for the commission, said this year's results don't change the fact that salmon stocks have been in decline since the 1990s.

"We're thrilled the numbers are so great, but the reality is 2009 was a problematic year," she said. "We'll take into account the great numbers this year, but there are still a lot of questions around the long-term sustainability of Fraser River sockeye."

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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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