Greg Taylor

Fisheries expert, Greg Taylor

Back in the 1980s through to the mid 1990s, when I sat down to prepare my salmon forecast for the year, I started with two questions in mind: Was it an even, or odd year, for northern, central, and Fraser pinks? And what was the cycle year for Fraser sockeye?

From there, I looked at the previous year’s returns of four-year-old and jack sockeye (male sockeye that return after only one year at sea) for Somass and Skeena to guess at what the returns might be for those systems one year later. Finally, I examined the brood-year and overwintering conditions for pinks and chums coastwide.

There always appeared to be sufficient coho and Chinook to support directed troll fisheries and to be taken as bycatch in pink and sockeye net fisheries so I didn’t spend much time considering these species. And, while there were always concerns about steelhead bycatch in net fisheries, there were sufficient numbers to continue to grow an expanding recreational fishery for these exceptional fish. In all, it was a fairly straightforward assessment refined over a couple of decades when B.C.’s salmon returns were relatively abundant and consistent. And while, in hindsight, the climate crisis was beginning to show itself in changing migration pathways as salmon strived to adjust to changing ocean temperatures, the climate too appeared relatively stable.

Today, it’s different. The first thing I consider is that salmon escapements (how many salmon make it to their spawning grounds) and productivity (how many salmon return for each spawner in their parent generation) are much lower than they were forty years ago. So what might be possible in any given year is much lower than it used to be. The doubling of a brood year escapement today does not usually translate to the same abundance as even a couple of decades ago. This keeps my expectations in check. I also now evaluate what new challenges the climate crisis has wrought on our salmon’s marine and freshwater environments during their rearing years; challenges that are outside of the range of conditions salmon have evolved to cope with over the past 10,000 years. I then look at what marine and freshwater conditions are expected in the current year and consider how they may affect this year’s salmon return. Finally, I look at what the water temperatures and migration conditions off the Alaskan panhandle might be for Canadian sockeye, pinks, chum, and coho returning to the north and central coasts, and northern migrating B.C. Chinook returning coastwide. Are they likely to lead to high Alaskan interceptions of Canadian salmon? With the abundance of B.C.’s salmon being much lower than in the past, the impact of high Alaskan interception rates is much greater.

As you can see, I’m weighing many more considerations before I turn to the tools I employed when B.C. salmon were abundant and the impacts of the climate crisis were only beginning to reveal themselves.

Reflecting on my 2022 forecast

Looking back on last year’s forecast, I predicted 2022 returns to be a mixed bag, though better than 2020 and 2021 seasons. This held true, with good returns in the Skeena and Nass, and poorer returns for several Fraser River runs. Also, as I expected, and as the alert reader may have noticed, the commercial fishing closures promised by the Minister to much fanfare a couple of years ago never materialized.

Here are my evaluations of the above factors for the 2023 salmon return:

Marine environment during the rearing phase

Although this was the third year of La Niña, the middle latitudes of the northeast Pacific were relatively warm; never a good thing for B.C. salmon. However, water temperatures were cooler along the north coast, into Alaska, and up towards the Aleutian Islands, which may have benefited some northern migrating salmon populations. This leads me to be somewhat pessimistic about southern B.C. salmon that could not take advantage of the cooler northern waters. On the other hand, I am hoping to see better survival for northern B.C. salmon.

Freshwater environment during the rearing phase

The heat dome in 2021 reduced water flows and warmed temperatures above optimal thresholds in many central and southern B.C. streams and rivers, negatively impacting the juvenile salmon rearing in them. While sockeye were largely protected because they spend most of their freshwater time in lakes, other species like coho, steelhead, and Chinook were vulnerable. And, of course, the Fraser Valley and the Nicola Valley experienced extreme flooding in 2021 which likely impacted Fraser pink salmon spawning success as well as freshwater rearing conditions for Chinook and steelhead. Again, the impacts of poor freshwater conditions leaned heavy on central B.C. and south coast populations.

This year’s marine and freshwater conditions

A very warm spring has warmed inshore marine temperatures and rapidly depleted snowpacks, both of which could lead to difficult migration conditions for this year’s returning salmon unless we experience a cool and relatively wet summer. On the positive side, reduced Fraser River levels early in the season should lead to relatively easy passage through Hell’s Gate and the Big Bar slide for early timed Fraser sockeye and Chinook. But if the summer remains warm and dry, rivers and streams will warm and flows will drop to where the survival of salmon migrating in August and early September will be compromised.

Expected water temperatures and conditions off Alaskan panhandle

Near shore water temperatures currently appear relatively cool, which would be good for Canadian salmon as it should lead to lower catch rates in Alaska’s interception fisheries targeting B.C. salmon. Cooler sea surface temperatures encourage salmon to migrate further offshore, distributed over a wide area, making them harder to catch. Warmer temperatures tend to concentrate migrating salmon close to the beach—where they are easier to catch—as they search for water cooled by currents and wave action. But a strengthening El Niño could bring rapid increases in marine sea surface temperatures.

Northern and central coast pink salmon

It is an off-cycle year with relatively poor brood year escapements but hints of improving productivity (e.g., Skeena pinks in 2022). There is a chance that with improving productivity and cooler near-coastal sea surface temperatures during the fry out migration, the even-year return may produce some reasonable catches. But it might be a stretch.

Fraser sockeye

Fraser sockeye returns are forecast to be very low, despite this being a sub-dominant cycle year. Most Fraser sockeye have a four year life cycle with very different levels of abundance between cycle years. There is one dominant year (last year) followed by a sub-dominant year (this year) and then two off-cycle years. The 2019 return (brood year for this year’s return) was the first to be impacted by the Big Bar slide. What increases the caution is that the Fraser Panel has overestimated the number of fish available for harvest in marine areas in recent years. For example, last summer the Panel recommended marine fisheries on late-timed sockeye (which included the famed Adams River sockeye return) based on their evaluation that escapement targets would be achieved. They were not. The challenges are the Panel’s inability to accurately estimate return strength, timing, and stock composition in marine areas and higher than accounted for in-river mortalities due to environmental conditions.

Skeena and Somass 2022 jack and four-year-old returns

Both the Skeena and Somass had reasonable to good jack and four-year-old returns in 2022, indicating the 2023 return should be at least average. Mid-June indications of abundance suggest both systems may enjoy higher than forecast returns.

Fraser pinks

It is the cycle year for Fraser pinks but there is great uncertainty about the 2023 return due to severe post-spawn flooding in the Fraser Valley in 2021, and only the latter part of the 2021 fry out migration was monitored. Any potential fisheries will have to be managed so as to protect late-timed sockeye, coho, and steelhead.

Coastwide Steelhead

South coast abundances are too low to allow for any bycatch in any fisheries, which will constrict, but not eliminate, commercial fishing opportunities. On the north coast, recent steelhead abundance has declined to where any bycatch is of grave concern and even the effort levels in directed recreational non-retention fisheries may be of increasing concern.

Final Thoughts

The final thing I look at are current early fisheries and returns. The Copper River sockeye fishery in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and the Somass sockeye fishery in Barkley Sound are the season’s first commercial sockeye fisheries; the earliest indicators for this year’s returns. Both are sending mixed signals. Copper River began slow, showed some strength, and has now declined again. Barkley Sound sockeye appear to be returning above forecast levels, but it is still early. Skeena sockeye are showing surprising strength for this time of year, but it is very early in the return and much too early to rely on these early indicators. Recreational fishers are reporting excellent Chinook catches on the north and south coast, but the returns of endangered Fraser River Chinook are abysmal.

With the complexities of the marine and freshwater conditions experienced by this year’s returns throughout their lives and the uncertainty of what they may face during their return migration, it is increasingly difficult to predict what we will see this year. It is not like the relatively straightforward assessments of the past; there are many elements at play and many unknowns with the changing climate.

2023 Harvest Forecast Table

Taking everything into account, here are my educated guesses for salmon catch by area and gear. It will be interesting to review this post-season to see just how wrong I am. The only thing I can say with confidence is that the unexpected will happen. Unfortunately, the infrastructure in the commercial fishery has declined to the point where if there are any large abundances in the north, much of what the much-reduced fleet may catch will be shipped to Alaska for processing.