Warm blob hurts fisheries hope

Warning of total sockeye closure downgraded this week, but temperatures still worrisome, say experts

It’s considered by many to be the tastiest salmon, but unfortunately the typically plentiful sockeye has had another rough year and an alert for the possible complete closure of this year’s Skeena fishery was issued late last week.

This week the numbers have remained steady, however, according to a Gitanyow Fisheries official who issued the warning.

“The run is still sitting at just over 800,000 so all of the priority fisheries are still open, the food, social ceremonial fisheries and the sport fishery is capped at one per day right now,” said their head biologist Mark Cleveland.

The Skeena Fisheries Commission said in a release that the sockeye return is on pace for fewer than one million fish, when over three million were expected.

According to Cleveland, the low count is due to poor ocean survival rates.

“The ocean is kind of a big black box where we don’t understand the dynamics of how fish get affected,” he said. “I don’t know if you have heard of that warm blob that’s been in the upper hemisphere off the coast of B.C. and Alaska, but it’s quite likely that climate change and an extreme El Nino year may have affected their survival.”

After the scare last week, Cleveland says that consultation with First Nations about potential closure of their fishery is now unlikely.

“For the First Nations fisheries to close, the run would have to drop to 550,000, which is the predicted run for the whole year,” he continued. “The total estimated return in the [Skeena river] is 515,000, so we are almost above the 550,000 minimum that would trigger consultation.”

Fisheries experts have also noted that sockeye in both the Nass and the Skeena are on the small side this year.

“It looks like most of the fives are failing,” said Cleveland of the Skeena run. “In other words, we were expecting two thirds of the run of Skeena sockeye to be five-year-olds, but they are showing up in really poor numbers so the run is made up mainly of four-year-olds.”

“It’s been late in some of the Alaskan approach waters, so people are just really hoping that the run is still two weeks late, and that’s why it’s looking so small,” he said.

Overall salmon numbers in the Nass started well this month. As is the case in the Skeena, warming water temperatures are a concern for all salmon species.

“We are concerned about water levels this year in the Nass tribs, especially with a good return of Nass Chinook, and hope that the fish will be able to reach the spawning grounds and survive the high water temps,” said Nisga’a Lisims communications manager Edward Allen of that river above the Skeena.

Warmer ocean temperatures have also led to the problem of algae blooms which have affected the fisheries on the coast.

“It has caused toxic algae blooms on the coast, brought warm water predators farther north, and warmed the marine waters more than three degrees warmer than normal,” said Allen. “As a result of the warming, we experienced an early freshet on the Nass River this year that saw our salmon smolts go out into the marine waters about two weeks early.”

The conditions brought on by El Nino are at least partly responsible for temperatures, he continued.

“Globally, the 2015 water temperatures are the warmest ever experienced when reviewing since 1891,” said Allen.

The closure of fisheries section 35 would only be done in the Skeena after consultation with the First Nations, says the Skeena Fisheries Commission release.

Currently the monitoring body anticipates 855,000 sockeye in the Skeena run, and it would take numbers below 550,000 for a closure of the First Nations fishery.