August 13, 2009

Millions of fish missing in Fraser River sockeye collapse

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Between 10.6 and 13 million sockeye salmon should be rushing up the Fraser River in British Columbia this summer, weaving in and out of Chinook runs, reports Mark Hume in the Globe and Mail. But only 1.7 million have returned so far, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. What happened to the 9-million-plus missing fish?

Some believe sea lice are to blame. The tiny parasites live on fish at farms in the Strait of Georgia, an area the young sockeye pass through on their journey to the sea. Dr. Brian Riddell of the Pacific Salmon Foundation says sockeye infested with sea lice could be more vulnerable to predators or environmental conditions, but doubts the parasites are entirely responsible for the collapse of the species.

Researcher Alexandra Morton disagrees. After correctly forecasting a collapse of pink salmon due to sea lice in the Broughton Archipelago several years ago, she predicted in March of this year that a similar collapse could happen to sockeye on the Fraser.

The situation is especially dire for many tribes on the Fraser that depend on the salmon to get them through the winter. It’s similar to the weak returns of king salmon on the Yukon and other Alaskan rivers – the fish just aren’t there.

Other species of salmon are expected to return with healthy runs on the Fraser later this year, but with the unexpected sockeye collapse occurring only weeks after their runs appeared healthy, no one is making any predictions.

– Emily Linroth

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