There could be an allaboriginal fishery on the Fraser River this summer, following early predictions that not enough salmon will return to allow for a commercial catch, say fishery managers.
Only between 1.2 million and 3.8 million sockeye salmon are forecast to return, down from five million last year, said Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission.
That could put the return lower than the dismal 1.5 million that returned in 2009 and led the federal government to call for an inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye. The Cohen Commission is due to release its final report by Sept. 30.
Lapointe said the median forecast is a return of 2.1 million fish this year, which means there's a one-in-four chance the run could be as low as 1.2 million.
That would mean that only about 900,000 fish would be left for harvest, he said. Most of those fish would be reserved for First Nations for food and ceremonial use, with a portion going to the U.S. fishery.
An all-aboriginal fishery would still mean consumers will be able to buy Fraser River sockeye because bands are legally allowed to sell their catch.
However, there is also a one-in-four chance the return could be as high as 3.8 million, said LaPointe, which means there could be a small Canadian commercial fishery on the Fraser of about 500,000 fish.
Lapointe said the situation looks bleak.
"It's not an optimistic scenario at all," he said, noting commercial fishers are prepared for the worst. Predictions are based on four-year sock-eye cycles, which means this year's low estimates are based on the small number of salmon spawned in 2008.
Darrell E n g e r, safety director for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, said the commercial fishery was bracing for a hit, but was optimistic the predictions would be inaccurate.
"I don't think we'll see 2010 levels, of course, but I'm hopeful there may be good ocean survival."
In 2010, fishermen on the Fraser saw a return of nearly 30 million fish, although Lapointe noted that was an anomaly.
In 2008, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of three aboriginal groups from B.C. which sought the right to sell their catch commercially.