Skeena sockeye forecast jumps to 2.2 million after tests at Tyee

This year’s sockeye salmon run is much larger than expected

Skeena fishermen caught some good news last week—this year’s sockeye salmon run is much larger than expected.

Before returning sockeye started to enter the lower Skeena River in June, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans forecast a run of about 1.4 million.

But that forecast rose to roughly 2.2 million once the DFO started to catch and count returning sockeye at its Tyee test fishery.

“Luckily for us, not only is it coming in larger, it’s coming in significantly larger than our Tyee tests to date,” says Dale Gueret, chief resource manager for the DFO’s north coast area.

Since 1955, the DFO has used its Tyee test fishery—a gillnetting boat that fishes with a net of fixed size at set times of day—to estimate how many pink and sockeye salmon escape the commercial fisheries along the Alaskan and northern B.C. coast.

Last year, about 1.9 million sockeye made the trip.

Today, more than three-quarters of Skeena sockeye return to the Babine-Nilkitkwa lake system.

At 500 square kilometres, it is the largest natural lake in B.C. and home to two man-made spawning channels.

One, at Fulton River south of Granisle, is the world’s largest sockeye channel, spawning some 500,000 fish every September.

Gueret says it can be tough to balance the success of those enhanced runs against wild ones.

Some, like the Kitwanga River run near Hazelton, have been fished by first nations for thousands of years, he said, but are now seriously weakened.

“There you see the problem,” Gueret said.

“You can have lots of surplus coming from an enhanced facility, but it’s timing in with a run that’s not as strong and can’t withstand the same pressure.”

While the DFO is sometimes criticized for how it times commercial fisheries or controls catch limits, Gueret said it’s part of a larger effort to avoid relying too much on enhanced runs and keep biodiversity high throughout the Skeena ecosystem.

“It’s another pool of genetic material,” he said. “If the system needs to adapt for whatever reason, more genetic material will make it happen.”

Down by the Morice River at ByMac Park, fisherman John Lyons says it’s been a slow year so far for another salmon species—Chinook.

“The river’s been high and dirty this year, but it’s just starting to drop and clean up,” he said.

Lyons, who has fished the Morice for 25 years, says pink salmon should arrive soon, noting that he’s already heard of pinks caught where the Morice meets the Bulkley.

In an average year, some 28 million salmon, three quarters of them pink and sockeye, are caught every year in B.C., the DFO reports—a number with a landed value of about $250 million.