It may be a dismal year for sockeye in the Skeena River, but the Nass River sockeye returned in higher levels than first predicted, meaning the Nisga’a were able to harvest 25,000 more sockeye than anticipated.
And a strong Nass sockeye run early in the season which saw in-season estimates skyrocket meant that those who manage the Nass fishery were able to open it up to commercial fishermen who were unable to fish Skeena sockeye.
“It was stable, and it shows positive signs for the future with some of the biological data that’s been collected.” said Richard Alexander, Nisga’a Fisheries Stock Assessment Management Biologist, of the Nass return.
“We’ve basically made the conservation goals. We were able to detect that the run was coming in stronger than forecast, and that provided more commercial opportunities – both for the commercial fishing gill net and seine fleet, as well as the Nisga’a economic fishery.”
The Nisga’s Lisims Government’s fisheries and wildlife department has managed the Nass watershed since 1992, in partnership with provincial and federal government, and the majority of the extensive program’s budget comes from the Lisims Fisheries Conservation Trust Fund, established in 2000 as part of the Nisga’a Final Agreement.
What typically happens is that the season starts on the Nass, and then when the Skeena opens the fleet splits – but that wasn’t the case that year due to the low sockeye numbers on the Skeena.
But the strong, early Nass run meant that the Nass was able to handle more pressure than it typically would, while still being conscious of conservation goals.
The Nass provided 16 days of commercial fishing for gill nets, and 18 days of commercial seine fisheries.
“There was more fisheries, higher Nisga’a entitlement, but we were very cautious that the run could potentially be early – those early (in season) forecasts were really high,” Alexander said, noting the Nisga’a Nation was able to harvest 25,000 more sockeye that pre-season predictions called for.
Early in-season predictions were calling for between 750,000 to 1,000,000 sockeye – which would have put the Nass sockeye well above average – but that eventually levelled off.
“On average, the Nass usually has about 600,000 for sockeye that comes into Canada every year,” said Alexander.
“Our pre-season forecast was almost about half of that – 345,000. And so now we’re currently sitting at around 455,000.”
That’s still less than average, but better than previous years, and Alexander says the sockeye coming through were predominantly four-year-olds, with a healthy push of jacks during the early pulse – which bodes well for next year’s predictions.
And spawning levels are also looking promising.
“About 70 per cent of the Nass sockeye spawn in the Meziadin river system, and our goal there is to reach 160,000 and if we can reach that then we’re doing really well,” Alexander said.
“They’re sitting at 108,000 – typically at this time of year they’re at 86,000 – so we’re on good track to reach the escapement goal there,” he said, noting that they’ve also achieved the aggregate escapement goal in terms of having enough fish in the upper Nass to reach all spawning grounds, which is 200,000.
The Nass was closed for two weeks in July to allow a weak stock to travel through, a move crucial to stock management and that showed the co-operation of the fisheries stakeholders.
“I think that it shows really good management that the commercial fishery, especially in a year when the Skeena was not open, that they were essentially shut down from sockeye retention for almost two weeks, and the Nisga’a did not do any sale fisheries in the same period,” said Alexander.
“You really need the co-operation of groups,” he said.
“We’re in an age of uncertainty, so when you’re doing fisheries or water management, you need to have systems in place during the year that allow you to adjust based on the information you collect.”
“You want to have the information that helps guide you so you don’t overfish on a poor return year, you provide economic opportunities to sustain these fisheries when it’s able to so you don’t lose out,” Alexander continued.
Fishwheels are used on the Nass to provide counts of returning salmon.