As the Quesnel/Horsefly sockeye run reaches its peak, it is apparent the numbers continue to be low.
“We’re nearing the peak and this particular year is one of the low-cycle return years for Quesnel Sockeye,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada acting regional director Les Jantz says. “They are primarily four-year-old fish and it follows what is termed a cyclical pattern.
“It has one very large return year, which is next year’s cycle year, that is followed by a subdominant return year, and then two off-cycle return years. This year is one of those and 2015 will be the next off-cycle year return.”
Jantz explains that in the past dominant cycle years, the largest return has been in the order of 12 million fish. In the off-cycle one of the largest returns witnessed was 270,000 sockeye. That was in 2004.
“If you go back in time, on this cycle there were a number of years when they were in the hundreds to low thousands in the 70s and 80s.”
The Quesnel/Horsefly sockeye were forecast pre-season to be a fairly low return, which is being proven as the stock assessment is showing very low numbers.
“We don’t have a number. We’re still in the process of doing our escapement surveys. Generally the timing of the preliminary escape estimate is ready early to late November. It depends on how many systems we have marked for capture programs.”
Early estimates for the Fraser Sockeye return in total is around 2.3 million fish.
“That’s a fairly low return for Fraser Sockeye in total. We did have a number of First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries, but there were no commercial or recreational fisheries in Canada directed on these fish this year.”
Jantz doesn’t have the catch statistics around the First Nations fisheries, but says the numbers were definitely down compared to what would be seen in a stronger return year.
“The harvest was below what we would normally like to see for First Nations,” he adds.
Northern Shuswap Tribal Council fisheries resource manager Gord Sterritt says the sockeye run is over. “There could be a few stragglers coming in, but we haven’t seen many in the Quesnel and Horsefly system this year at all.”
Sterrit says food fishing wasn’t great, but a lot of it was reli.ant on the Chilko stock and catching those at Farwell Canyon.
“Some of the upper Fraser stock weren’t doing too bad so the fish that were caught in the main Fraser would have been from those stocks.
“If we were to rely on the Quesnel and Horsefly this year, we definitely wouldn’t have caught many fish. We knew it was a low run this year, but not this bad.”
There are very few fish on the spawning grounds, he adds.
“We were doing enumeration in the creeks and we didn’t observe sockeye.
“We’re also doing Chinook surveys in the Horsefly and we saw very few sockeye spawning and actually some pre-spawning mortalities.”
It’s a huge concern, he says.
“The Quesnel run has been declining for a number of years and it’s pretty much a disaster.”
Sterritt has worked for NSTC since 2005 as the fisheries resource manager.
Last week Sterritt and his staff were installing fencing in McKinley Creek to begin Coho counts that will continue until December.
“Every year we enumerate Coho as they migrate into the creek. We take measurements, record the health of the fish, and the number of fish that come into the system,” he says.
McKinley is essentially an indicator stock for Coho for the interior Fraser River population, upstream of the Thompson River.
“It allows us to determine how the run is doing. It provides information where the stocks are above the Thompson, and what’s coming back into the upper Fraser.”
Coho are the last to run and won’t be showing up significantly yet; however, the fences go in early so none are missed if they do show up early.
“Usually through the middle of October until the middle of November we’re enumerating Coho coming through the fence until there are no more showing up. We also do stream walks, over flights in the different systems within the Quesnel that aren’t connected to the McKinley,” Sterritt says.
The stats are used for the Pacific Salmon Commission to help determine what’s happening in the watershed.
Sterritt says Chinook salmon numbers are also down not only in this area, but in the whole upper Fraser and Kamloops Lake area.