The return of this year's Fraser sockeye is a phenomenon. The fishermen have not seen this many fish since 1913. They kept thinking the last sockeye had entered Johnstone Strait, but the fish just kept pouring in from the Pacific at both ends of Vancouver Island. I went out in my boat to float amongst them every morning in Queen Charlotte Strait and watch them fining all around me, rolling at the surface like porpoises, always pointing south, never stopping. Hundreds of miles away, newspapers in Fraser River towns were reporting an economic boon from all the people pouring in to see the fish.
The current total estimate for all the sockeye runs within the Fraser River is 34 million. About 13 million were caught which brought approximately $500 million into communities from Prince Rupert, where 600 people got jobs processing to Vancouver and most towns in between on both sides of Vancouver Island. This is an enormous boost to these rural economies. The fish then swam through the biggest city in our province (Vancouver) and are now carrying 45 million kg of nutrients uphill to feed our forests and lakes.
This is one amazing animal… They are so successful that they can share their wealth prolifically and still reproduce themselves. This run is reminder of what this fish can do: its sheer ability to generate life and capacity as an economic powerhouse.
The Fraser sockeye scientists did not know this many sockeye were going to return. The indicators were all good, but the enormous unexpected decline last year has made them cautious. We are running blind with an extremely important resource because we don’t know what is turning the sockeye on and off.
What the scientists do know is that this lineage of Fraser sockeye has consistently been less damaged than all the other year classes. They don’t know why. The many runs of Fraser sockeye are like strands of a rope. Each are a distinct line coming and going to sea in different years, using unique spawning grounds, and they twine together to make one of the largest salmon returns in the world. Most of the lines, or runs, are declining severely. What we have this year is an exceptionally good return of the last thriving lineage. This is not a rebound. The young of last year’s feeble return are in the lakes and waiting their turn. If they suffer the fate of their parents they will be extinguished.
Last year’s crash was so shocking because as smolts the 2009 sockeye had been large and numerous. To predict run sizes, scientists use numbers like the size and number of smolts that went to sea, the seawater temperature, plankton density, how many jacks return early and other factors. This is not all that different from how fishermen predict runs, just more math! Over the past 18 years the ability to predict Fraser sockeye has become increasingly worse. To scientists this means there is something they are not measuring, something new has arrived on scene since the 1990's and is responsible for these returns.
The scientific measurements indicated the 2010 sockeye would be large, but the scientists could not risk giving people false hope. Last year was a harsh lesson for all. We don’t know why the Fraser sockeye are swinging widely in a boom and bust rhythm with no discernable pattern.
The headlines from around the world are awash in what people are calling “perfect storms.” Drought, fires, floods, the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico, oceanic dead zones. But here in BC we are awash in the perfect miracle. Two years ago tiny sockeye smolts traveled down the Fraser River, past towns and villages and through the urban sprawl of Vancouver, they went out to sea where things went right and are now returning in numbers reminiscent of 100 years ago. This generation of Fraser sockeye has erased 100 years of abuse, greed and negligence and are offering us a second chance.
There are many runs within the Fraser sockeye population and the damaged ones remain low, but the 2010 run offers the rare and exceptional second chance to save this resource for us and for future generations. They are doing this for free.
There are so many 2010 sockeye it is hard to find canning jars, the Vancouver processing plants shipped some fish north to create hundreds of jobs in Prince Rupert. Little fishing communities like Sointula are alive with optimism, smiles, energy, money! A fisherman on the Fraser told me he thought a squall of wind was coming towards him but it was leaping sockeye. First Nation people whose bodies have come to depend on salmon after 8000 years together will be nourished after several years of no salmon. The growth rings on millions of trees will be broad, marking the legendary run of 2010, it will be a bandwidth scientists will use as a reference point for the next 100 years. As leaves and new needles stretch out next spring they will absorb record amounts of carbon and produce pure clean oxygen. We don’t pay for the trees to do this, but they do it anyway and the people on this side of the planet will breath air made by trees that absorbed the 2010 sockeye into their roots. The rainmaking machinery of ocean air sliding up tree-clad mountains will be assured to bring us water. Thousands of people will absorb valuable omega oils, unborn and nursing orca babies will be sleek and glossy. The tourism and commercial fishing folks will spend money made from these fish in their towns all winter. These fish are good for our world!
But we don’t know how this happened. The agency we pay to manage our fish, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has become irrelevant. They were not aware of the coming crash last year, nor the biggest return in 100 years this year.
This is inexcusable. We pay their bill and we can demand better service. Fisheries Minister, Gail Shea, was quoted recently saying Mother Nature is in charge…. as she hands out money to the Norwegian salmon farming industry to make a sea lice vaccine to fight the drug resistant lice that DFO told me all winter do not exist. Wrong Ms. Shea, you are in charge of how we humans treat these fish.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada should not be investing public funds into privately operated fish feedlots when their mandate is wild fish. We have an extremely damaged run now growing a new generation in the lakes and a spectacular run coming home. What we need is answers as to why the sockeye run is swinging between such extremes one year to the next. DFO has an extremely lackadaisical attitude toward our sockeye after they leave the river. After watching DFO flounder around trying to study sea lice in Broughton I feel they are out-dated, irrelevant and likely corrupt and we should move forward without them, phase them out.
What needs to be done is follow the fish as they travel the coastal waters of BC. DFO is too ill-equipped to do this, but projects like the POST study combined with small boat hand purse seines could bring us a wealth of information about the challenges our fish face be it food, temperature, farm disease, predators, chemicals. Unless we get a new Minister of Fisheries and new Director General for DFO Pacific Region this is never going to happen and we are going to continue blundering around trying to sample sockeye after they have left the Strait of Georgia, squandering public money and telling us Mother Nature is in charge.
Until DFO is reworked top to bottom I think all who would like to see the miracle of the 2010 sockeye happen again should just do the work ourselves. Talking with DFO is useless; they cannot even accept the science that has been done for them. They are a political entity messing around with a biological resource and it is not working.
I hope the Legendary 2010 Fraser sockeye remind people that the natural world is a powerful mechanism that offers everything we need. We cannot let anyone suspected of damaging this extremely valuable resource to keep secrets. This is a chance to get it right! There is no law saying we cannot manage our own resources and that is what we should do.
The 2010 sockeye are telling us the river and ocean can still make phenomenal number of fish! It is up to us if we get to keep them coming home like this.