Where are the Fraser River Sockeye Salmon?

Sonia - August 22, 2016

You may have seen recent articles like this one in today’s Vancouver Sun about the extremely low numbers of sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River this year. And while this year’s closure of fishing on the Fraser River sockeye runs was not entirely unexpected, the realities are much worse than anticipated and this has conscientious sustainable seafood consumers wondering what’s going on. Are sockeye salmon at risk in general? Is it possible they are being over fished? Should we be worried about eating BC salmon? As a Community Supported Fishery, we think it’s important to engage with these questions and to keep ourselves and our members informed so that we are making the best decisions with the most up-to-date information about our precious marine ecosystems.

Here is our best understanding of the current situation with Fraser River sockeye salmon, and BC salmon in general. We hope it helps you make informed choices about your seafood consumption!


The Salmon Life Cycle Makes Overfishing Unlikely

The lifecycle of a salmon makes monitoring populations easier than for other species, and our current practices are informed by many generations of wisdom developed by our first peoples who lived so closely in tune with salmon. The lives of wild, BC salmon start when they hatch from their eggs in creeks and rivers around the province, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from the pacific ocean. They then spend a year or more making their way out to the ocean where they can spend 2 or more years, sometimes travelling half way to Japan! When the final year of their life draws near, all salmon return to the river of their birth to spawn, sometimes within metres of where they themselves were hatched.

Chum salmon, for example, return to their spawning grounds every 4 years. As they begin to detect freshwater from their home river, they undergo a drastic transformation. Their skin changes from silver bright scales to tiger-striped green and purple! The males in particular grow hooked beaks with a sharp tooth at the end which they use to fight off rivals.

These two chum salmon illustrate the different stages of the life cycle of the same species. The chum on top was still a long way from its spawning grounds while the bottom one was ready to spawn and die within the week.
These two chum salmon illustrate the different stages of the life cycle of the same species. The chum on top was still a long way from its spawning grounds while the bottom one was ready to spawn and die within the week.

After swimming for hundreds of kilometres up rivers and through streams, female salmon lay their eggs in the gravel of the stream bed. The males then fertilize the eggs. Both males and females die as soon as they have completed their spawn. Their nutrients are an incredibly valuable part of our ecosystem — in no other significant way are marine nutrients brought back up river to feed bears and other animals, and to fertilize plants. A new generation of salmon will hatch and make its way back out to sea to repeat the cycle.

For thousands of years, humans have been part of this delicate ecosystem, harvesting salmon at various stages along the way to spawn. The numbers of salmon that return each year have grown in response to predation by all animals including humans. Today, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) carefully monitors spawning salmon. They use knowledge from the spawn 4 years earlier, numbers of fry that leave the river each year to spend their lives in the ocean, coupled with data collected from sea to river to predict how many salmon need to spawn in a given year to maintain the viability of the run. As the spawn begins, the DFO has various ways of counting returning salmon including at narrow river channels and in the spawning beds themselves where monitors are charged with the task of counting fish. When spawning beds are full, any other salmon that return to their stream will simply dig up the eggs of previous spawners to complete their spawn and will not increase the strength of the run. These surplus fish are what we are permitted to catch for First Nations food fish as well as for commercial and recreational fishing.

When numbers of spawners of any particular species in any particular stream are low, there are options to ensure the run is protected. The DFO can close fisheries for a few days or a week to allow more escapement. They can also restrict mesh size or hours of fishing (day vs night) to ensure that accidental by catch of a vulnerable salmon species is reduced.

Salmon gillnetting and trolling are fishing methods with very low by catch. These methods allow fishermen to specifically target one species of salmon and to live-release any by catch of unintended salmon. Gillnetters are required to have revival tanks on board so that if a vulnerable salmon species is caught, it can be revived with water pumped through its gills before it is released.


If It’s Not Overfishing, Then What Is It?

Significant bodies of research have illustrated that overfishing is not the cause of the decline of salmon runs. Even when less sustainable methods of fishing are used, sockeye, chum, and pink salmon simply are not present on our coast throughout most of the year so it is not possible to overfish them.

So if overfishing is not the cause of the decline of some runs of salmon, what is? Historically, hydroelectric dams, logging, railroad construction, and rock slides resulting from these industries have accounted for decreases in spawning salmon. In 2009, the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye run spurred the multi-year Cohen Commission to investigate. The 3-volume report points to rising ocean temperatures, illegal poaching, and diseases spread through fish farms among the likely contributors to the collapse of the Fraser River sockeye. It also made over 60 recommendations, none of which were acted upon by the previous government. A few weeks ago, the current government announced its intention to take action on all the items listed in the Cohen Commission. This would be a good start to better understanding and protecting our vulnerable Fraser River sockeye.


Salmon Are Resilient

The realities are alarming and a lot of work needs to be done to protect our salmon which are a so woven into the fabric of BC’s ecosystems, culture, spirituality, and economy. But the good news is that salmon are incredibly resilient and have some remarkable evolutionary features that have helped keep their populations strong even in the face of incredible adversity.

15-20% of some species of salmon spawn on the 5th year, rather than on the 4th year. These 5th-year spawners are able to rapidly re-populate a damaged year. This was the case in 1913 when the Canadian National Railway completely blocked the Fraser River with a massive mudslide while using explosives to build a tunnel. Within just a few spawning cycles (around 20 years) that year was once again the brood year, illustrating that, when left to recover, salmon are incredibly resilient.


Know Your Fisherman

More than ever, it’s imperative people ask where their salmon comes from, and that it is legitimately caught and legally sold from abundant runs in BC.  It’s also important to keep in mind that this was not, in fact, a “bad year for fishing” everywhere on the coast, and many sockeye salmon returns showed up with higher than expected numbers! All our sockeye were caught in the Skeena (late but strong), Barkley Sound (stronger than predicted for the 2nd year in a row), and Smith Inlet (one of the strongest returns in the last 20 years). And each piece of salmon proudly bears the name and face of the fisherman who caught it, as well as the boat name, date, and area the salmon was caught.


Our relationship with salmon is vital part of life on the coast. We have cohabited with salmon for thousands of years and, if we preserve the important multi-generational wisdom that resides within fishing families, and pay attention to facts, research, and sound science, we can preserve this delicate relationship indefinitely. Thank you for knowing and supporting your local fishing families!



Sonia - August 22, 2016

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Where are the Fraser River Sockeye Salmon?

Sonia - August 22, 2016

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