More fish escaping North Coast fishermen in 2016

While the season opened earlier than in recent years, fisherman are having a poor harvest in the Skeena River.

Sockeye salmon are evading the fisheries early in the season.

The fishing season has had a grim opening.

While the season opened earlier than in recent years, fisherman are having a poor harvest in the Skeena River.

The Skeena Tyee test fishery, a gillnetter that collects data for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to determine the amount of sockeye salmon that escape the fishery, reported higher than average levels of escapement on July 8-9.

The Northern Representative for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union (UFAWU), Joy Thorkelson, said only 7,000 fish were caught and there were 230 boats out fishing. Area 4, in the Skeena, is tracking well but people have different theories about why so many fish bypassed those fishermen.

“We don’t know if it was deep or the fishermen weren’t fishing in the right areas. We don’t know what happened. There was lots of escapement and they should have caught way more than they did,” she said.

There are many factors that can affect the sockeye salmon harvest, said Mark Potyrala, a fisheries management biologist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Those factors include the changing water levels, turbidity and temperature, predator abundance and migration patterns.

DFO theorizes that turbidity may be one of the factors at play.

“There’s low turbidity in the river and it is possible that there is a higher incidence of fish avoiding the net, and with the clearer water in both the river and out in the marine fishing area, fish are likely going down deeper,” Potyrala said.

Another theory is that the temperature of the water is higher than normal. It’s 17 C degrees, which Potyrala said is elevated from normal but only by a degree, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary and water levels are higher than last year at Environment Canada’s Usk gauging station, just up-river of Terrace.

Fishermen are reporting low catches in the ocean as well, which Potyrala said is likely due to very clear water in Skeena approach waters where the gillnetters fish.

“We also haven’t seen anything in the river from food fisheries either to indicate that there’s lots of fish in the river,” numbers that come from First Nations.

The catch and escapement to July 14 suggests an estimated total return to Canada of 1.4 million Skeena sockeye salmon for 2016, down from a projection of almost 3 million on June 30. The declining trend in the total return estimate is troubling to DFO.

“We hope that there’s going to be more fish coming,” Potyrala said.