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Sockeye salmon return in droves to Quesnel Lake watershed

Organizers of the Horsefly Salmon Festival have something to celebrate this year.

Residents and visitors of the small rural community are starting to witness what the estimates are predicting — the initial, pre-season forecast of 1.14 million fish for the Quesnel sockeye salmon has been adjusted to 2.156 million.

The return is a relief and a sign of hope to many who have been worried about the struggling run for years.

“This year is insane. It’s wonderful to see so many fish in the river,” said Dina Stephenson, Horsefly resident and one of the organizers of the Horsefly Salmon Festival.

Stephenson said after the lack of salmon returns in 2015 and 2016, festival organizers were considering hosting a “what happened to all the fish festival.”

Judy Hillaby, a retired restoration biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and her husband Bruce moved to Horsefly in 2001 just to be close to the fish she spent her career studying.

“I’m happy that they’re back. This is good news — with all the bad stories out there we need some good news.”

Read More: Quesnel Lake fish study gets green light to continue critical work

So what happened to run in previous years? Hillaby said it’s complicated.

“These things are multi-dimensional. It’s not a straight line. There isn’t a simple explanation,” Hillaby said, noting in fish dynamics, stressed populations go into boom and bust cycles.

“In 2009 the run crashed. There were almost no fish. That was an awful shock and a wake up call,” Hillaby said of the year which prompted the Cohen report into the management of the species.

Hillaby said the numbers have been unpredictable and declining since the last large run in 2005. The run came back a bit in 2010, with a bigger run in 2014 — the same time as the Mount Polley Mine tailings breach.

And now this.

“The patterns have shifted. I have no explanation for that. Here we are in 2018, relieved and forgiven for our sins,” she said.

Read More: Salmon closures a devastating blow to North Coast business

“[When the numbers go down] we are always afraid they will never go up. To witness them is a rush — seeing is believing and this year is going to be on a whole other level.”

Now that the run estimate has almost doubled, a sport fishery for sockeye has even been opened at Horsefly Bay in Quesnel Lake from Aug. 23 to Sept. 15.

“Welcome to fish dynamics. This is a fine example of why you have to be conservative, it’s easy to miss-estimate.”

Hillaby said salmon are a heritage and a keystone species in the local watershed, critical to keeping the watershed productive.

To see them back in such strong numbers is exciting for all involved.

“The mood is happiness and quickly going to excitement. Some of us are over the moon.”

Stephenson said after years of fearing for the future of the fish, the big run is a relief.

“It’s the realization now of how precious these fish and watersheds are to us.”

The Horsefly Salmon Festival is scheduled to take place Sept. 15 and 16 along the banks of the Horsefly River.


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Angie Mindus

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