Salmon are the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest coastal ecosystems, and with some runs having declined as much as 90% or more in the last 50 years their recovery is a central conservation issue in the region. Salmon politics are controversial, since many competing interests come into play: commercial fishing, recreational fishing, Native fishing, fish farms, hydroelectric dams, agriculture, development, logging - all play a role in altering salmon populations and their habitats.
This year, after several seasons of extensive fishery closures due to record low numbers, the Fraser River in southern British Columbia is experiencing a huge sockeye salmon return unlike any other since 1913. The International Pacific Salmon Commission is now estimating a total run of 34,546,000 fish! Compare that to last year's dismal run of barely over 1,000,000 fish and you'll get an idea of how amazing these numbers are. It seems they keep increasing the number every few days as more and more fish come back.
A huge run like this is obviously good news for everyone. Fisherman are having a field day, though some are trouble meeting their high quotas as the facilities just don't exist anymore to handle and process such a bounty. It's certainly good for all salmon-eating predators in the ecosystem, though just how good it is for our fish-eating Southern Resident orcas is up for debate. The vast majority of these whales' diet is salmon, but past research shows they preferentially feed on Chinook salmon. They have been around a lot this summer, leaving inland waters less than normal, so one has to wonder if they are taking advantage of the sockeye feast. Best of all, the salmon returns this year prove that our oceans and rivers are still capable of supporting this many fish when conditions are right - a hopeful sign for the future and the long-term recovery of all five of our salmon species.
Unfortunately, many are quick to take credit and/or shed blame as a result of these great salmon numbers. The Departments of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada are claiming this as a conservation victory, and all the parties mentioned above as having a negative impact on salmon populations are using this statistic as proof that they aren't the culprit for the decades of low salmon numbers. Even 34 million is a fraction of what this ecosystem used to support - regular returns of over 100 million fish before the dawn of the commercial fishing age. The fact of the matter is, one great year does not undo the last century of damage done to local salmon populations, and the fact that nobody saw this coming points out that despite the best population estimates science currently has to offer there are great gaping holes in our understanding of what influences salmon returns. Last year, they predicted more than 10 million fish to return, and less than 1.5 million did. This year, they predicted about 11.4 million sockeye, and now the numbers are triple that. Even in retrospect, nobody seems able to offer a complete explanation as to why so many salmon returned this year compared to others.
So while I meet this historic salmon year with a sense of cautious optimism, to me it points out yet again just how little we understand nature. Hopefully everyone will enjoy the abundant salmon this year, a reminder of the "good old days" for all of our west coast rivers, and a taste of what the future could hold if we renew our efforts to conserve one of our region's most valuable natural resources: the wild Pacific salmon.