Huge sockeye run filling up Whatcom County fishing boat

The Bellingham Herald reports on the record Fraser River sockeye fishery:

The Pacific Salmon Commission, a U.S.-Canada panel that oversees Fraser River salmon populations, now estimates the 2010 run at 34 million salmon, the biggest run in 97 years. That’s about three times the commission’s prediction at the start of the season.

Fisheries regulations will let many of those fish escape upriver to maintain the run, and current treaties reserve most of the harvested fish for Canadians. But U.S. Indian and non-Indian fishers are entitled to intercept some of the sockeye as they migrate through U.S. waters, and they are making the most of the opportunity.

Cliff Cultee is a Lummi Nation gillnetter who has been fishing the waters around Point Roberts. Gillnetters use a long mesh net suspended by floats, hanging in the water like a curtain. After a few hours – a period that gillnetters call a “set” – the fisher pulls in the net to retrieve any fish that have been trapped by the gills.

Two hundred fish would be considered a pretty good set, Cultee said, and the fishing in recent weeks has been phenomenal. On one set, Cultee pulled in more than 800 salmon.

“In one two-hour set, it took us four and a half hours to pick all the fish out,” Cultee said. “That was fun.”

The autumnal storm front that whipped through the area Tuesday, Aug. 31 was no fun. Cultee and other fishermen found themselves suddenly buffeted by big waves, and most had to hurry for safe harbors and leave the sockeye for another day. One big wave slammed into Cultee’s boat and pushed a window right out of its frame, into the cabin.

“It was crazy,” Cultee said. “That was the worst I’ve ever been through on a small boat.”