A gillnetter crew in the Fraser River off Surrey pulls sockeye from their net during the 2010 season.

Fishery opens for Fraser River sockeye

Run size estimated at around 3.2 million salmon

It won’t be the extraordinary run of 30 million sockeye salmon that surged up the Fraser River last summer and helped fill freezers along the way.

But fishery managers have decided there are enough incoming salmon to justify commercial fishing.

The Pacific Salmon Commission approved a three-hour opening for gillnetters in area E of the Fraser River this Thursday after the latest estimates pointed to a run of at least 3.2 million incoming sockeye.

Gillnetters who fish off Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Port Hardy were the first to get their nets in the water, with an opening last Sunday.

The run strength is believed to be in line with pre-season projections but it’s too early to say with confidence how many later-running sockeye will return.

Bob McKamey, vice-president of the Area E Gillnetters Association, is hopeful the counts will rise and fishery openings will continue.

“There are some pretty promising numbers popping up,” he said of test fishing catches of Fraser sockeye off northern Vancouver Island.

McKamey said there’s more scope to allow fishing in the river this year because the Fraser is running so high.

The high water level means there’s more vertical room in the river for incoming salmon to avoid nets and continue upstream, he said, so escapement rates should be higher than usual.

“The height of the water is so far above anything we’ve fished in recent history,” McKamey said. “Our ability to catch the fish will be affected.”

First Nations, which get to fish ahead of other users for food, social and ceremonial reasons, have already been catching salmon for several weeks.

Aboriginal groups are also expected to be granted an economic opportunity fishery where sockeye can be sold now that some commercial fishing is approved.

Recreational angling for sockeye may also be opened soon although there’s been no announcement yet.

Watershed Watch Salmon Society executive director Craig Orr said last year’s huge sockeye run was a “pleasant blip” but noted the overall long-term trend – which triggered the Cohen inquiry – is of declining runs.

“We’re not out of the woods yet in needing to take a very precautionary approach in how many fish we harvest in the Fraser,” he said.

Pink salmon are expected to be plentiful this year, with a run estimated at 17.5 million fish.

Traditionally low-value and far less lucrative than sockeye, pinks may attract more attention from commercial fishermen this fall since the Marine Stewardship Council certified all B.C. pink salmon as sustainably fished. The green seal of approval may help boost prices.