By Barb Brouwer
Special to the Observer
They’re coming home.
Thousands of late-run sockeye salmon have entered the Adams River in an age-old, four-year spectacle of life.
Temperatures are dropping a bit but still perfect for viewing the fish returning to their spawning grounds as the Salute to the Sockeye Festival continues at Tsústwecw Provincial Park in the North Shuswap.
Salmon are arriving daily and Scott Decker, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Fraser River stock assessment program head, said the peak of the return is expected over the next week.
While there will be plenty of fish for visitors to see, scientists are concerned that late-run Fraser River sockeye have been returning to the Shuswap in steadily declining numbers.
Past late sockeye returns to the Adams River during dominant years were 3.78 million in 2002, 1.5 million in 2006 and a banner 3.86 million in 2010, the largest run in recorded history.
There was a huge drop in 2014 when only 707,000 sockeye returned and an even lower return of 536,000 in 2018.
“My guess is that the 2022 return will be less than that in 2018, so we are seeing a strong declining trend since 2010.”
While pre-season forecasts were high for early summer and late sockeye runs, actual returns for early summers were far below what was expected as well.
“A couple weeks ago, we were trying to estimate the number of fish heading to the Shuswap, but a lot of them were still in the Strait of Georgia and we didn’t have a good sense of what was happening,” said Decker. “It’s extra challenging for us to get a number for Shuswap fish as they do something other fish populations don’t, they hold up at the mouth of the Fraser River. Other salmon populations swim by and keep going.”
Early data was collected through test fisheries while the sockeye were in the strait, but information becomes more reliable as the salmon pass hydro acoustic (sonar) stations at Mission and Qualark.
It’s estimated that approximately 1.6 million late-run sockeye have passed the sonar stations, with a portion of the fish heading to other systems. That leaves about one-million-plus Shuswap-bound fish heading to the Adams, Shuswap and Eagle rivers, minus whatever has been caught in social, ceremonial and recreational fisheries, as well as salmon that die of natural consequences.
“First Nations food, social and ceremonial (FSC) and public recreational fisheries for sockeye in the Fraser River System closed on Sept 30,” said Decker. “Commercial net fisheries closed before that, so there is currently no retention fishing allowed for sockeye.”
He added that there are still 20,000-plus sockeye migrating past Mission/Qualark on a daily basis, and tens of thousands or more en-route between Mission and the Shuswap. However, SONAR counts do suggest the majority of the run has migrated past Mission.”
Decker said it’s very likely that a large number of sockeye are holding in Kamloops Lake, with the majority holding in areas of Shuswap and Mara lakes.
Salmon have been known to hold in deep cold water to recover from their journey from the ocean, particularly if they have had to contend with difficult conditions.
“The clock is ticking, they are deteriorating and some will succumb to mortality,” Decker added, pointing out the fish begin to deteriorate when they enter fresh water. “Another reason is the afternoon water temperatures in the rivers have been in the neighbourhood of 18 C.”
While scientists don’t have enough information to determine what is causing the large drop in late-run sockeye returns, Decker said scientists are seeing a long-term decline in ocean survival.
He says there have been two La Nina winters whose colder ocean currents result in stronger salmon production.
“With those favourable conditions, there were stronger than expected returns for most sockeye populations along the coast,” he said. “So the concern is why we’re seeing a lower return for the Fraser compared to the other runs. They should have been better than average, but they’re not.”
Meanwhile, the Salute to the Sockeye Festival is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with Indigenous-led displays and activities, artisan wares and souvenir merchandise as well as on-site food vendors.
Proceeds of an entry fee cover the costs of hosting the event as well as providing funding to Shuswap community groups for stewardship activities. For more information, go online to salmon society.com
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