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Fraser River salmon run twice as large as predicted

The Pacific Salmon Commission's Fraser River Panel is predicting that an important B.C. salmon run will be almost twice as large as expected.

"It's good news for a change," said John Reynolds, holder of the Tom Buell BC Leadership Chair in Salmon Conservation and Management at Simon Fraser University, "It's the first time we've gotten really good news in years."

Reynolds said that the current run, called the "early summer" run, of sockeye salmon was initially predicted to number about 783,000 fish swarming up the Fraser River to return to their birthplace and spawn. The Commission upgraded that estimate to 900,000 recently, and then to 1.6 million fish Wednesday evening. That latest estimate, said Reynolds, is based on counts of salmon in Mission and is relatively certain.

It's reason for "cautious optimism" for anyone who cares about salmon, but particularly so for the fishing industry.

"Everybody wins," said Reynolds, "Commercial fisheries have been shut down more often than not over the last few years... They're in desperate condition and badly needed a good run... Native fisheries along 1,200 kilometres are dependent on these runs from the Fraser River to the Stuart watershed up near Prince George... And recreational fisheries are happy too, that's big business."

Last year, despite initial estimates of 739,000 fish, only 195,000 returned.

"They were the lowest returns seen in over 50 years," Reynolds said, "And they also weren't predicted. It's one thing if you see it coming, but there was basically no warning."

Reynolds said that it wasn't clear why the return is so much stronger this year than expected, but that it was likely based on conditions in 2008 when the current generation of salmon were juveniles.

"They're very vulnerable at that stage of their life," he said.

The early summer run makes up about a third of the total yearly salmon to head up the Fraser River. Another third, the "early Stuart" run, has already passed, and was also about twice its initially forecast size.

The Fraser River salmon runs are much smaller than those of the Adams River, which pass in October. This year's Adams River run is currently forecast at a hefty 8 million salmon.

"Every family should go see the Adams River this year," said Reynolds, "It's one of the great ecological spectacles."

But though a strong Fraser River run is certainly an unalloyed good, Reynolds said, there are still things that can go wrong. The river's temperature is currently about 19 degrees Celsius, right at the edge of the salmons' tolerance.

"Anything above 19 starts to hamper these fish, because they're basically a cold-water animal," he said, "If temperatures stay high, we may see significant mortality... That could undo a lot of the good that we've seen so far."

Ryan Elias is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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