Despite closures and limitations on sockeye fishing on the Skeena River, salmon numbers have reached a level where the fishery has opened — at least temporarily — this week.
After an early closure for last year’s sockeye commercial fishing season, including limitations for food fishing, the 2018 season opened on the Skeena River on July 24 and 25.
“The happy news is that we’ve got almost triple the escapement on the Skeena than we thought we would have. So we are going fishing tomorrow for sockeye,” councillor Joy Thorkelson said at the Prince Rupert council meeting on July 23.
Colin Masson, North Coast area director for Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), said the midpoint for sockeye return this year was originally 520,000. The current estimate is 1.34 million as of July 25. If the run is late this year, as Masson said is likely, the return estimate may get even higher.
Masson said 60 gillnetters took to the water on the first day, with more than 70 fishing sockeye on July 25.
“We wanted to be sure it was a precautionary kind of fishery,” Masson said. “If there had been a large gillnet fleet, we would have been much more concerned about opening it up. A second day would have been after reviewing the catch data.”
DFO will analyze the results from today’s fishing and continue to keep an eye on the Tyee Test results.
Commercial fishing may open again in the first week of August, with short nets and short sets to reduce bycatch.
Food, social and ceremonial fishery
While food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fish for First Nations has been open throughout the season, the North Coast DFO area director said that many Indigenous fishers have been holding off until the estimated return in the Skeena was over 600,000.
“The effect of that is appreciated and supported. The First Nations Technical Committee and leadership took it upon themselves to limit or eliminate their FSC fishery until they were sure there was sufficient fish coming into the system and that was a very respected measure on their part.”
In a call with First Nations leaders last week, Masson said DFO encouraged them to continue to harvest or open their harvest, with the sockeye returns well above 600,000 at that point.
The trigger for the recreational sockeye fishery is set at 800,000 past the Tyee Test Fishery.
“We may reach that point in the not-too-distant future,” Masson said.
The recreational fishing of coho and pink is anticipated to open toward the end of the first week of August. Masson said DFO is considering timing that opening with the recreational fishing of sockeye. Specific areas of the Skeena, where chinook are known to hold, may be limited to eliminate bycatch.
“It wouldn’t be a cart-blanche opening through the entire watershed for coho and pinks, but limited to certain areas to ensure the chinook are left alone. One of the thoughts at this point, although we haven’t finalized that, is maybe that’s an opportune time to open for sockeye so that would make it a consistent approach for recreational fishing,” he said.
“The commercial fishery is on, the food fishery is fine,” Thorkelson said. “It’s a happy day for Prince Rupert. The Skeena is looking very healthy right now.”