Early commercial sockeye fishing in the Somass River won’t be happening this year, according to Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) projections.
For 2017, the recommended management forecast for Somass sockeye is in the “critical” zone for harvest management; corresponding to an expected return of less than 200,000 adult fish.
“There’s virtually no fish for anyone,” said Michael Spence, resource manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Spence said some sockeye could possibly be caught for First Nations’ food, social and ceremonial (FSC) uses but that all First Nations groups have agreed not to fish for sockeye.
“They’ve agreed to close the lower [Somass] River to all fishing, whether it’s net or rod and reel, which is what’s happening for recreational,” Spence said. “And of course there’s going to be no commercial fisheries.”
Sockeye numbers have been low before in the Alberni Valley. In 2007, the DFO forecasted a less than 300,000 return.
This year’s low return can be attributed to very low observed smolt production and relatively low marine survival rate for the 2014 and 2015 key sea-entry years associated with this year’s adult return.
“We don’t want to fish below 200,000 because we think that lowers the production for further years,” Spence said. “But it is a forecast and there are times where we are wrong and sometimes you hope you are.”
Spence said the first re-forecast, to look at escapement, should be implemented by the first week of June.
“We will have a test boat working the Inlet…sampling the fish, and we will get an idea of abundance,” Spence said.
For tourists and anglers, the Inlet will still be open to fishing—just not for sockeye.
“If you want to go out there and fish for coho, chinook and in Barkley Sound of course,” Spence said. “The only part that’s totally closed is the tidal portion of the Somass River to angling and that’s because that’s where the sockeye will school up and they’ll be particularly vulnerable even if you were fishing for something else.”
Andrew Olson, fisheries manager/biologist with the Tseshaht First Nation said until more sockeye come back, there will be no fishing for First Nations or commercially.
“If there’s more fish than forecasted or we see an increase than what we would expect in June, then we’ll start planning fisheries after that,” Olson said. “We won’t know until about the end of June.”
Olson said he can imagine the low sockeye return being “devastating” for commercial fishermen.
“There will be some fish sampled and those fish will be distributed to First Nations for food, but that’s probably less than 1,000,” Olson said.