A massive run of Fraser River sockeye salmon this year provided a dream fishery for tribal fishermen, but can’t begin to make up for decades of poor returns that have devastated the tribal fishing economy, tribal salmon managers say.
More than three times as many sockeye returned to the Fraser as were expected this year, but tribes were unable to reach their harvest goals because of a diminished fishing fleet, delayed realization of the run’s magnitude, diversion of the run through Canadian waters and overloaded processors.
The run of 34 million sockeye was the largest since 1913, but is not a sign of a resurgence.
“Based on the information we have, we expect poor sockeye returns for the next three years,” said Lorraine Loomis, Swinomish fisheries manager and tribal representative to the Pacific Salmon Commission, which manages the Fraser sockeye run for the United States and Canada. Fraser River pink salmon, which return in odd-numbered years, will provide some relief to tribal fishermen in limited fisheries next year, she said.
Last year, fisheries in the United States and Canada were canceled after only 1 million of the forecast 10 million Fraser sockeye returned.
The Fraser sockeye fishery is the most economically important to tribes. Nine treaty tribes in western Washington have treaty-reserved rights to catch Fraser River sockeye in U.S. waters before they migrate upstream. They are the Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Lummi, Nooksack, Makah, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Suquamish, Swinomish and Tulalip tribes.
This year, treaty tribal fishermen caught about 1.2 million sockeye, but still fell short of their total allocation of the enormous run.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime fishery for many of our fishermen, but we couldn’t catch all of the fish in our allocation,” Loomis said. “After nearly two decades of little to no fishing on Fraser River sockeye, we have lost quite a few of our tribal purse seiners.”
The larger purse seine vessels are the most effective means of catching sockeye, but they are more expensive to operate than smaller gillnet boats. As a result, there were fewer tribal purse seiners to fish this year.
“The problem is that a lot of our fleet is so rundown and broken down because we haven’t had this kind of fishing for so long,” said Lummi fisherman Carl Lane. Lane has relied on crab and chum fishing during slow sockeye years to keep his purse seiner Marathon in operation.
“The best season I’ve had before this was a third of what I caught this year,” he added. “I’ve never seen this kind of fish in my life. I don’t expect we’ll ever see anything like this again.”
A cautious conservation management approach to the fishery also contributed to the tribes’ not harvesting their full share. The returning sockeye were running about a week later than expected, and it took several days to gauge the enormity of the run. By that time, the window of harvest opportunity for the tribes was reduced.
The late timing was compounded by the run’s diversion rate. Salmon returning to the Fraser River migrate along the west and east coasts of Vancouver Island. Sockeye along the west coast of the island are harvested by treaty tribal and non-Indian fishermen in western Washington. Fish returning along the east coast are harvested primarily by Canadian fishermen.
Early in the season, most of the sockeye returned to the Fraser River via the west coast of Vancouver Island, but by the time fisheries managers were certain of the run’s magnitude, most of the fish had diverted through Johnstone Strait on the east coast.
“The diversion rate was going up and we only had limited number of days of good fishing,” Loomis said.
Another hindrance was the time it took to offload boats at fish processing plants. “The fish processors were overloaded,” Loomis said. “It took a lot of time to unload the sockeye, which meant less time for fishing.” Some processors considered hauling fish up to Alaska fish plants for processing, she said.
Treaty tribal fishermen haven’t caught more than 1 million sockeye since 1993. In 2007, the catch was fewer than 6,000 fish. In 2008, there was a federal declaration of a fisheries disaster, and Fraser sockeye tribes and state commercial fishermen were allocated $2 million to compensate for the loss of income.
Lummi Chairman Henry Cagey said at the time that it would take at least $5 million to compensate the tribe’s more than 600 fishermen.
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