Huge salmon runs bring cash bonanza for U.S. and Canadian fishermen
The biggest sockeye run in nearly a century — 25 million fish — is headed back to British Columbia's Fraser River and its tributaries. It's a bonanza for American and Canadian fishermen, who are more used to squabbling over how to divide up a declining resource.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Boom and bust on the Fraser RiverThe number of sockeye salmon returning to the British Columbia river and tributaries.
Less than 2 million
In 40 years of dropping nets into Washington waters, Ray Forsman has never experienced fishing like this past week.
He headed off early in the morning to the fishing grounds, and in two brief sets of his purse-seine net, filled up his boat with 70,000 pounds of sockeye. The fish, yielding ruby-red fillets, were worth more than $100,000.
A couple of days later, he quickly filled up his boat once again.
"I have been so engrossed in getting this job done that it hasn't all sunk in," said Forsman, 68, a commercial fisherman with the Suquamish Tribe near Kingston. "This is history. Just overwhelming emotions."
These fish are part of the biggest sockeye run in nearly a century to head back to British Columbia's Fraser River and its tributaries. An estimated 25 million fish have returned, more than double preseason forecasts.
The runs are yielding an unexpected bonanza for U.S. and Canadian commercial fishermen who are more used to feuding over dwindling shares of a declining resource.
"When something goes wrong in nature, we always blame each other about who caught too much," Forsman said. "This time, nature made sure there is enough for everybody."
The harvest may exceed 11 million salmon. Under international agreement, U.S. tribal and nontribal fleets that catch some of the fish as they pass through American waters are expected to get about 1.9 million of those fish.
Over the past decade, Fraser River runs have been more bust than boom. Last year was especially painful. Fewer than 2 million fish showed up, a fraction of the predicted run of more than 10 million, and the fishing grounds were closed.
Other years also yielded paltry catches and prompted some fishermen to abandon the harvest.
"Three years ago, I had 21 fish for the season," said Skip Anderson of Bellingham.
This year's U.S. fleet includes about 250 smaller gill-net vessels and 34 of the larger purse-seine vessels that lay out a net and then — with the aid of a skiff — cinch it up tight like a purse.
Much of this fleet is working the west side of San Juan Island, where fishing has sometimes been phenomenal for sockeye that average nearly six pounds apiece. The fish fetched from about $1.20 to $1.80 a pound.
Stan Nelson, a commercial purse seiner from Bellingham, said he edged up close to the kelp and rocks where the salmon bunched up. His crew set the net and pulled in a personal record of more than 100,000 pounds of sockeye.
"It's such a significant moment in my life to see this kind of abundance," said Nelson. "It's pretty humbling."
In recent years, there have been a few bright spots in Washington commercial salmon harvest. But these have not been enough to offset a long-term downturn that has resulted in a big reduction in processing capacity. So this year, those processors that remain are having a tough time keeping up with the sockeye volumes.
"So far, we have not had to turn a single pound of fish away, but I can tell you it's been a herculean effort to get that done," said John Garner, an executive at Trident Seafoods, which operates a Bellingham plant that is taking some of the fish.
If the Bellingham plant can't keep up with the volume, Trident may ship some fish north to Alaska for processing. "But it's fun to have problems like this. We'll take these problems over having no fish any day," he said.
Some of the Fraser River fish are showing up in local supermarkets, such as Costco, which is running a special to promote fresh sockeye fillets. But with a lot of other wild salmon from Alaska now on the market, some of the sockeye will be frozen or possibly canned.
The Fraser River harvest is regulated through the Pacific Salmon Commission, which includes U.S. and Canadian representatives.
Biologists caution that this year's run does not signal a sustained upswing of sockeye populations returning to the Fraser River watershed.
Although the Fraser's main stem is free of the dams that impede salmon runs on other rivers such as the Columbia, sockeye production still has had dramatic ups and downs. The biggest run on record is an estimated 40 million sockeye that returned in 1913.
The fish now returning to the Fraser were hatched from a strong 2006 run of wild fish that returned to the Fraser. These fish spent a year in freshwater and then headed out to sea, where they appeared to have found excellent feed that increased their survival rates.
But biologists expect that Fraser returns for the next few years will be much smaller. So 2010 may stand out as a blip — albeit, a glorious one — in the turbulent history of the Fraser River sockeye runs.
"It's a wonderful experience," Forsman said. "I hope to see it again."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.