Record returns are predicted for salmon this season all along the west coast, with one notable exception: the Fraser River.
In fact, test fisheries for the region are abysmal and it’s reopened the debate over the impact of fish farms that once populated the waters of Discovery Passage.
“We’ve seen in 2022 strong runs, like extraordinary returns in Alaska, Bristol Bay, we’ve seen record runs to the very far south of the range in the Columbia,” BCIT fisheries biologist Marvin Rosenau said.
But the situation on the Fraser River is a different story.
Test fisheries predict that the total number will be down by as much as 40 per cent, scratching hopes for a big sockeye year on the Fraser, and likely preventing both a commercial and sport fishery.
Rosenau suspects part of the story on the Fraser is something happening hundreds of kilometres away.
“We see a pretty tight correlation with the expansion of fish farms in the Discovery Passage area,” he said.
Fraser sockeye that are returning now would have swam out to sea at a time when a number of open net fish farms were operating in the Discovery Islands, a route taken by many of the juvenile sockeye.
It is also a place where conservationists have long believed the fish get infected with sea lice and mouth rot disease.
“I think there is a good body or evidence that suggests that Fraser sockeye at least were impacted probably by fish farms,” said Stan Proboszcz, senior scientist with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
While those farms were removed as part of the federal government’s plan to minimize contact between wild and farmed salmon, the debate over the total effect of the farms continues.
The fish farming industry says multiple studies have been clear there isn’t a connection.
“All of those reviews have failed to show any links between salmon farms and the returns of wild salmon, despite what is being pushed out in the media,” said Brian Kingzett, science and policy director for the BC Salmon Farmers’ Association.
The BC Salmon Farmers’ Association also points out that their farms were in place for a long time, in both high and low return years for sockeye.
While the critics concede that there are likely multiple factors behind this year’s situation, they expect that the mystery of the Fraser River’s missing sockeye may become clearer in coming years, when they can count the number fish that never encountered farms on their way to the ocean.