Where are they?
That’s the conundrum fisheries officials are facing and it seems several thousand fish have gone missing from the Strait of Georgia in the past week.
A six-day test fishery by one troller that concluded on Oct. 1 estimated there were anywhere from 1.1 million to 1.6 million late-run sockeye lingering in the Strait of Georgia.
A three-day survey of the same six areas of the strait was completed by two trollers on Saturday, Oct. 6, with a total catch of only 47 sockeye.
That compares to 620 sockeye caught in the survey of the previous week.
Mike Lapointe, chief biologist with the Pacific Salmon Commission, says the catch in the most recent survey is one-tenth of the previous survey.
“In looking at historical variations in survey results, the range was even broader than the 1.1 to 1.6 million range,” he says. “There was a one in 10 chance of an abundance of fish in the Strait of Georgia as low as 600,000, but also a one in 10 chance of an abundance of greater than 2.8 million, says Lapointe.
After the previous survey completed on Oct. 1, there was already a catch plus escapement of 4.4 million and it appeared the late run would be greater than 5 million, says Lapointe.
But since that survey was completed, two things have happened, he says.
“Based on the most recent survey, they don’t seem to be in the Strait of Georgia; there’s 100,000 or less out there,” he says.
The second thing is that the hydro acoustic station at Mission only had an estimate of 300,000 fish passing since Oct. 1.
“In the last three days, we’ve had catches decline in the Fraser River and the hydro acoustic numbers have dropped from 70,000 a day three days ago to less than 20,000 on Sunday,” he said Monday. “Signals are saying the run is on the decline, but we still haven’t accounted for the fish that were in the strait last week.”
Lapointe says the two trollers hired to complete the test fisheries were released in September when fisheries officials believed the run to be all but over. When it was decided at a Sept. 26 meeting to undertake one more survey, only one troller was immediately available and took six days to complete a test fishery that is normally done by two boats in three days.
Fisheries officials are now wondering if the troller passed over the same school of fish more than once or if there were more salmon in the river this weekend.
“More will come, but it might be a small amount, maybe 10,000 a day for another 10 days,” Lapointe says. “Even if you take 100,000 and add that to the 300,000, that still doesn’t get us to the lower bound of 600,000 from the late September survey.”
He says even if there are no more fish, officials are looking at a 4.6 million catch plus escapement as of Sunday, Oct.7.
The Fraser River Panel agreed to use a late run sockeye provisional estimate of five million for planning purposes on Sept. 19.
But the numbers, as always, are in question until the fish are finished migrating.
“It’s not looking horrible; 2.2 million fish have gone past Mission and of that 2.2 million, 1.5 million have come since Sept. 15,” Lapointe says.
“If worst comes to worst, the run will be a little less than what we thought. But who knows, we could be surprised. We still probably have another four or five days (of the run).”
Some 300,000 sockeye have passed by the station at Mission since Oct. 1, something Lapointe, who has been on staff at the Pacific Salmon Commission since 1992, has not seen since 1994.
“I hope people are not too disappointed; we still have a healthy spawning escapement,” says Lapointe, noting the latest estimates could mean a 10 per cent reduction in the 750,000 sockeye forecast to return to their Adams River spawning grounds.