David Griffin and Arthur Mercer unloading a catch of wild Nass sockeye during a much stronger season last year. Current estimates put the 2016 run at 235

Nass sockeye salmon face dismal returns

Low returns in the Nass River have closed commercial fisheries to the sockeye harvest, meaning a loss in income for many Nisga'a residents.

It’s one of the Nisga’a fisheries’ primary catches, but this season is shaping up to be a rough year for sockeye salmon.

Low returns in the Nass River have largely closed commercial fisheries to the sockeye harvest, meaning a loss in income for many Nass Valley residents.

And this year may still turn out to be one of the worst for sockeye in three decades.

The Nisga’a Lisims Government fisheries branch estimates 235,000 sockeye salmon will return to the Nass River in 2016, a forecast that is down significantly from the 750,000 counted last year.

The lowest ever recorded by the Nisga’a fisheries was 259,000 in 1988.

Salmon that return each summer to the Nass River are considered an important resource by Nisga’a communities and the strength of the return determines how many fish can be caught.

“The current low return is thought to be caused by poor marine conditions that affected the survival of juvenile fish that went to sea in 2013 and 2014 and are returning as adults this year,” stated a report released by the Nisga’a government on July 15.

It is thought that warm temperatures in the Pacific Ocean affected the survival rates of sockeye that are now returning to their up-river spawning grounds, explained Nisga’a government executive director Cheryl Stephens.

“Warm ocean conditions play a part in producing poorer quality food resulting in poorer growth [of juveniles] and increased predation from fish species not normally in these waters,” she noted.

“In 2015, marine conditions were actually warmer so poorer returns are expected from juveniles that . . . will return in 2017.

“The good news to share is that [this year] ocean conditions were much cooler and juveniles that went to sea this year are expected to have higher marine survival as they mature into adults over the next two years,” Stephens said.

Low returns mean there is no surplus fish for commercial and individual sale fisheries past a few brief openings which took place in June.

However, Nisga’a fishing for food, social and ceremonial purposes, which takes priority over all other fisheries on the river, continues – barring the return does not drop below 100,000 sockeye.

Individual sale fisheries brought a total of $1 million back to Nisga’a communities last year and the low numbers of fish in the rivers this year could affect incomes, explained Stephens.

But there is still a possibility that the sockeye salmon run will be late.

Though it is estimated that more than half of all sockeye have reached their spawning grounds, the total return still could exceed 300,000.

Experts forecast prior to the fishing season that sockeye would return this year in numbers close to 574,000.

Chinook salmon, however, are fairing significantly better than sockeye despite moderate numbers forecast for their return.

Stephens said the discrepancy between the strength of the two returns may come down to the characteristics of each salmon.

“The chinook juveniles may survive better than sockeye juveniles as they are much bigger in size when they go to sea,” she said.

With nearly the entire run now passed, officials estimate that 22,000 chinook salmon will have returned to the waters of the Nass River.

“Nearly all of the chinook entitlement is taken for food which is fortunate given the current return status for Nass sockeye,” explained Edward Allen, communications director for the Nisga’a government.

Temperatures in the Nass River are two degrees above average this year, though that is not thought to be affecting the salmon, said Stephens.

But higher temperatures in waterways can sometimes be lethal for fish, she noted.

“When fish enter the other river systems of the Nass, they face greater challenges due to higher water temperatures. Fish have a higher chance of succumbing to diseases before they spawn,” she said.

The Nisga’a government fisheries are responsible for monitoring all waters in the Nass tributary, including the Nass and Kincolith rivers.

Under the Nisga’a treaty, the nation is entitled to harvest mainly Sockeye and Chinook for food purposes each year.