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Sockeye rebound confounds

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VANCOUVER -- Something strange may be happening under the rolling swells of the north Pacific Ocean, but scientists here on the West Coast are suggesting the mystery may be an extremely welcome change.

The most recent prediction from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans indicates the majestic Fraser River -- at 1,375 kilometres the longest and most important river in the province -- might be the site this coming summer of the greatest returning wild salmon run since records have been kept.

In the past, British Columbians expected salmon returns would always be plentiful and the natural abundance could be counted on to fill many families' smokehouses, canning jars and chest freezers.

For most of the past 25 years, however, the returning salmon runs have been dwindling, suggesting the Pacific stocks spawning in the Fraser system were facing troublesome times.

Scientists, fishermen and journalists began wondering what was killing the salmon and why so few were returning to spawn. Warmer water temperatures, increased acid levels, pollution, spawning habitat loss, disease, urban and suburban encroachment, improperly sited fish farms, overfishing and illegal fishing were all raised as potential, or collective, environmental causes.

This decline was especially foreboding for the wild sockeye, the most sought-after of the five returning salmon species. An icon of B.C's aboriginal and cultural past, the protein-rich red and oily sockeye use the Fraser as a pathway into the province's vast interior and the gentle gravel beds they lay their eggs in. For time immemorial, they would fertilize the eggs of a new generation, fulfilling nature's powerful regenerative cycle before their bruised and depleted carcasses helped feed roaming bears and hungry eagles.

But in 2009, in what looked like a possible death blow for the Fraser sockeye, only about 1.3 million fish returned, far from the expected 10 million, prompting a federal inquiry.

Grappling with the stream of bad news and bracing themselves for more in the future, scientists were shocked and delighted four years ago when a record 29 million sockeye returned to the Fraser.

And just recently, DFO's upbeat forecast for this year's returning sockeye, the descendants of the 2010 run, suggested as many as 72.5 million might make their way up river to spawn. Unsurprisingly, this year's forecast has also been met with wild enthusiasm from aboriginal, commercial, and recreational fishermen who are already dreaming of huge catches and big paycheques.

Out here on the coast, you could almost hear the province's citizens exhaling in relief and joy. If the sockeye can come back from the brink, their thinking goes, then there is surely hope for other species -- in the water and out of it -- to recover from the toxic excesses created by an ever-expanding, ever-consuming, ever-destructive human race bulldozing everything in its way.

Rollie Rose, a veteran fishing guide near Victoria, has been advising prospective clients the coming sockeye salmon season is "a once-in-a-lifetime fishing bonanza."

President of Sooke Salmon Charters, Rose said the 2010 return was so prolific his clients caught their four-fish-per-person limit in an hour and a half. There were so many fish, he recalled, the ocean surface was alive with sockeye thrashing as they migrated towards the mouth of the Fraser River.

If more than twice the number of sockeye return this year, he added, it will be an incredible experience for guides, fishermen, processors, environmentalists and the public.

But predicting salmon returns months in advance of the migration is a tricky business and those involved in the forecast are careful to point out that while there may be as many as 72.5 million sockeye this year, there could also be as few as 7.3 million.

Jennifer Nener, DFO's acting area director for the lower Fraser, noted this year's median forecast is currently set at about 23 million sockeye.

Admitting that forecasting is an uncertain art, Nener adds even if the number of fish is near the low 7.3 million estimate, that would still be a healthy return and the biggest since 2010.

To the rest of Canada, the size of sockeye returns in the Fraser River may not seem as important as climate change or pollution near Alberta's oilsands region or starving polar bears. Out here, however, they strike to the core of what makes B.C., perched on the edge of the mighty Pacific Ocean, unique.

Indeed, the province is defined as being one of the world's last regions that has a significant percentage of its natural beauty still intact. Here there is still an environment for environmentalists to fight over.

And the miracle of nature as practised by returning sockeye is something to cherish and protect. In an uncertain world, the spawning fish demonstrate the restorative capacity of nature.

So good luck to the sockeye on getting home this summer, the more the merrier.

Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2014 $sourceSection0

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