Fisheries experts are hoping strong early sockeye salmon returns to the Skeena River are signals of the best year to come in at least 20 for the critically important northwest B.C. watershed.
But they also caution that even with a big increase in numbers salmon face an uncertain future in the vast watershed which includes rivers and streams stretching throughout the region.
Initial estimates from the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery, which logs returning sockeye near the mouth of the Skeena, project four million sockeye salmon will return to their natal streams in the watershed this year.
That’s roughly twice the historic average and among the highest returns for more than a century, according to salmon researcher Michael Price.
But while a cause for quiet celebration, “the story is never so simple,” Price added.
The Skeena River watershed is Canada’s second-largest salmon-producing watershed after the Fraser River and enters the Pacific Ocean just south of Prince Rupert. Its biggest tributaries include the Bulkley-Morice, Babine and Kispiox rivers, which support commercial, recreational and Indigenous food fisheries.
The number of sockeye returning to spawn hit historic lows in recent years, forcing restrictions on all three fisheries. Climate change, overfishing on the coast and habitat loss have all been blamed for the declines. In particular, warming ocean temperatures have led to lower survival rates for salmon smolt — young salmon — as they make their way from the spawning grounds into the Pacific.
But several years of cooler ocean temperatures, combined with a decrease in commercial fishing at the mouth of the Skeena, are being credited with this year’s higher-than-average returns.
Greg Taylor, a fisheries expert and advisor to groups like Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, said it’s the biggest Skeena sockeye year he’s seen since 2000.
“For the Skeena watershed and the people living in the watershed, I think that it is good news,” Taylor said. “The Skeena is looking healthier than it has for a couple of decades, at least.”
But Taylor emphasized that strong returns don’t necessarily reflect improved watershed health, but may be the result of environmental changes in the ocean. He said an unusual three straight La Niña years have created the coolest sea surface temperatures the coast has seen in a decade.
It’s resulted in increased sockeye returns stretching from Bristol Bay in western Alaska to the Columbia River in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, he said.
Other salmonid species are also showing a slight uptick, the researchers added, likely due to the same factors.
“If you’re a sockeye, or a salmon, it’s just a more amenable environment out in the ocean for you right now,” Taylor said. “The unnerving part is what can go down can go up again and, of course, we had successive years of very warm sea surface temperatures, including the Blob, that had a really a negative impact upon salmon.
“Most of us are thinking this might bode well for next year, and maybe even the year after, but in our age it’s hard to look too far into the future.”
While it’s still early days, Taylor said the outlook isn’t looking as positive for the Fraser River, which has also struggled in recent years with low returns. He expects there will be a clearer picture in the days ahead.
“A lot of us are watching the Fraser with real interest, because if it doesn’t come back, it speaks to something else going on with the Fraser,” he said. “Other sockeye runs, we knew off the bat — this is going to be a big one.”
Price said that this year’s high returns in the Skeena provide an opportunity to get more salmon into spawning beds, with the hope of setting the watershed up for stronger runs in the future.
“I think the combination of potentially favourable environmental conditions and relaxed fishing pressure is enabling more fish to return, and I think there is a lesson there,” he said. “If environmental conditions have improved, now’s the time to enable more fish to return to spawning grounds to really start to rebuild what are diminished populations throughout the coast.”
But it remains to be seen how salmon entering the Skeena will be distributed amongst its various tributaries, each of which hosts its own genetically distinct population and how many are headed to the Babine River.
Historically, the Babine was home to the majority of Skeena sockeye.
While the enhanced spawning beds are good news for salmon generally, they have artificially propped up sockeye numbers in the Babine watershed. Fishing quotas have been set based on the total numbers, leading to depletion of smaller runs when salmon are fished indiscriminately at the mouth of the Skeena.
Price said enhanced salmon runs in a few areas "can often conceal problems throughout the watershed.” Low returns and sockeye populations in individual tributaries can be ignored if the focus is on total numbers.
“So it’s not necessarily a ‘good’ news story throughout the watershed,” he added. “It’s generally a better news story than if the numbers were super low, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great news story for individual nations trying to fulfil food requirements.”
The Gitanyow Nation suspended its food fishery in the Kitwanga River, which joins the Skeena 100 kilometres northeast of Terrace, in the 1970s after the river’s salmon returns — once among the highest of any Skeena tributary — plummeted.
In the 1990s it formed Gitanyow Fisheries Authority, a branch of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs office, to address the declining stocks. It has worked since to rebuild stocks by increasing access to spawning beds and radio tracking salmon.
The nation recently secured $1 million to explore a conservation-based hatchery that would enhance Kitwanga sockeye to protect the genetically unique stock.
“For the last 20 years we’ve been monitoring and we’ve got a large rebuilding program for Kitwanga sockeye,” Gitanyow head biologist and senior technical advisor Mark Cleveland said.
While early returns this year look promising, it’s too early to say if the Kitwanga will benefit from this year’s strong returns, he said.
“We’re seeing these large sockeye returns to the Skeena, but it’s too early to say whether the small wild populations are also doing well, and we won’t know until the post-season,” Cleveland added. “There are early indications that the run does look good, but at the end of the day, it’s still really early.”
He hopes one day the nation will again have a food fishery at Kitwanga.
“The Gitanyow are working really hard and investing a lot of time, resources and money to protect and rebuild the stock, so I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think this year is really encouraging and I’m hoping that it continues.”
Another 80 kilometres upstream of Kitwanga, Witset Canyon is a thundering constriction on the Bulkley-Morice river system, known as Wedzin Kwa to the Wet’suwet’en.
Wet’suwet’en began fishing there early last week with dip-nets.
The main sockeye run usually begins the first week of August, said Wet’suwet’en fisheries and wildlife manager Walter Joseph, but so far results have been disappointing,
“People are catching a few here and there, but not enough to meet the community’s needs, that’s for sure,” Joseph said. “I hope they’re late. If they’re not late, it’s kind of a disaster.”
At the canyon, the nation monitors fish that are caught, tracking each species. Most years, there is enough for a food fishery, although in slim years it doesn’t open. The nation also runs a tagging program, which provides data on returns after the season is over.
But nothing is more effective than hearing from community members about what’s happening in the river, Joseph said.
“Usually the community is pretty quick to tell us when their needs aren’t being met,” he said. “This year the returns could be huge and I’m hoping Wetzin Kwa will experience the same big returns, although we haven’t seen much evidence of it yet.”
At the Babine River, where the vast majority of Skeena sockeye are heading, Donna MacIntyre, fisheries director with Lake Babine Nation, said this year’s returns have been strong.
The nation operates a salmon counting fence, in co-operation with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, on the Babine River, about 350 kilometres from the mouth of the Skeena. Unlike the Skeena Tyee Test Fishery, which estimates overall returns, Lake Babine Nation knows exactly how many sockeye are returning to the territory.
“The fence is how we ground-truth it,” MacIntyre said. “Because we count every fish.”
Salmon arrive at the fence about three weeks after entering the Skeena, MacIntyre said, and it’s too early to conclusively determine how many will return to the Babine.
“It’s a huge run,” she said. “All indications are showing that there’s lots of fish.”
The nation began counting fish as they arrived in mid-July, she said. By last week, they had counted more than 500,000 returning sockeye, surpassing the volumes needed to open the nation’s food fishery. As of Sunday, 740,000 returning sockeye had been counted.
She said nation members have seen some “pretty meagre years” recently because of low sockeye returns, COVID-19 restrictions and soaring food prices, and some are hoping that there will be a limit increase given this year’s abundance. That will be a decision for chief and council, she added.
But she said the nation remains conservative with the number of fish it takes.
Before opening a food fishery, she waits for enough salmon to pass the fence to ensure not just the dominant Fulton and Pinkut sockeye return to the artificial spawning channels, but that the wild stocks also get the opportunity to reach other rivers and streams.
“I need those wild stocks to go through. Those are the wild stocks swimming with the Pinkut run right now, from the artificial spawning channels, and so I did not allow any commercial fishery or any food fishery until today,” she said Wednesday. “Because we can’t tell them apart, I would much rather hold off.”
She said nation members are excited for the return of its commercial fishery, Talok Fisheries — an operation that employs 60 to 80 people — as it was suspended the past two years due to COVID-19.
A portion of the commercial catch will be sold to River Select, a company selling wild salmon products sustainably harvested by First Nations across B.C.
Babine sockeye are also sold at the counting fence and Tachet Campground, at the mouth of the Fulton River. It’s a popular place for fishers who come for the day to stock up after catching their limit, MacIntyre said.
The opportunity to catch and sell the fish is an important part of Lake Babine Nation’s sense of identity, she added.
“The people want to see our fish branded and have that sense of pride, like we did 100 years ago,” MacIntyre said. At that time the nation sold to miners and the Hudson's Bay Company workers in the area.
“We need to feel that sense of pride again.”
In an emailed statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed that approximately four million sockeye are expected to return to the Skeena this season, far surpassing the five-year average of 1.4 million and 10-year average of 1.7 million.
It added that returning populations are stronger than expected for a number of areas in B.C., Washington and Alaska.
The strong returns have allowed the opening of fisheries “for all harvest sectors,” it said, with decisions based on “science to support conservation and sustainable fisheries” and meeting obligations to First Nations and the international community.
“For 2022, the department is taking a more precautionary approach towards managing impacts of commercial fisheries on stocks of conservation concern, including smaller wild sockeye populations, Chum and Steelhead returning to the Skeena River,” it said.
The department added that it has put additional measures in place for the commercial Skeena sockeye fishery and that there is a pre-determined early August end date for both the seine and gillnet fisheries, with the goal of protecting stocks of concern.
The commercial fishery only takes place at the mouth of the Skeena once the predicted run is greater than 1.05 million, the department said. The allowable catch increases as the return increases, to a maximum 40 per cent once the return reaches four million or greater.
Recreational sockeye fishing opens for the Babine River and lake, Fulton River, Pinkut Creek and Skeena main stem once 800,000 fish have entered the watershed.