Not any more

Is the biggest Fraser sockeye run since 1913 too much bounty?

In Canada on August 26, 2010 at 08:58

VANCOUVER — The biggest Fraser River sockeye salmon run since 1913 is proving to be almost too big a bounty for British Columbia’s fishery industry to handle.

With a total catch allotment of 7.5 million fish – nearly four times what was expected this season – fishermen are scrambling to maximize their haul, and that is stretching a shore industry that hasn’t handled any Fraser River sockeye at all in the last three years.

British Columbia’s bigger fish processors are revelling in the unexpected windfall, using it to feed processing plants on the north coast that have suffered through poor salmon returns and to reopen overseas markets in Japan and Europe that haven’t seen coveted Fraser River sockeye in years.

"I won’t say it hasn’t been a bit of a challenge to go from zero to where we are now," Greg Taylor, vice-president of fisheries management for Ocean Fisheries Ltd., one of B.C.’s two biggest processors, said in an interview. "But we were expecting a reasonable [Fraser River] return, so we had done a lot of homework [to sell into] those markets."

He said the industry had expected the department of fisheries and oceans to approve a total catch allotment, between commercial, recreational and various aboriginal fisheries, of two million.

Taylor said the swelling run has brought prices down for fishermen. At the start of the season, buyers were paying up to $1.75 per pound for Johnstone Strait-caught sockeye landed at Vancouver. Today that price is $1.35.

The unexpected boom in the run takes 2010 "from being an okay year to a very good year."

And while overseas markets haven’t seen Fraser sockeye in several years, Taylor said it is still recognized as "one of the premium salmon in the world."

"It wasn’t as difficult as you might think to get people interested in Fraser River sockeye again," Taylor said.

Ocean has pretty well stopped processing fresh sockeye for the domestic market, Taylor added, and is focusing on packing frozen products for export to Japan and Europe as well as salted and barrelled fish, a specialty for the Japanese market, and canned salmon.

Taylor said the company is shipping salmon to its Prince Rupert processing plant while that plant is sending ice to Ocean’s Richmond operations by boat to help it handle the catch.

For the Canadian Fishing Co. (Canfisco), the Fraser River’s bounty means fish to feed its major cannery operations in Prince Rupert, providing additional weeks of work for 600 employees on two shifts.

"A lot of workers were going to have a lean year without this," said Rob Morley, Canfisco’s vice-president of development and production.

Morley said all of Canfisco’s plants, with 900 employees, are running now and "producing some of the best-quality fish people have ever seen."

He said that a bonus for this season was that many south-coast salmon runs have been strong, starting with the Barkley Sound fishery on Vancouver Island, which has given his company a good supply of fresh fish all summer long.

Morley said the economic boost from this year’s fishery "is huge."

However, for independent fishermen who don’t have contracts to supply larger processors or haven’t maintained ties with brokers or cold-storage facilities, turning the bounty of their catch into cash could prove more difficult.

"With 25 million sockeye returning, the industry is not equipped to handle that amount of fish any more," observed Scott Moorehead, who is with the family-owned shop Longliner Seafood on Granville Island.

Lawrence Brew, at Cloverdale Cold Storage Ltd., a big handler of frozen fish, said his company was running flat-out trying to keep up and has had to turn customers away.

"A lot of independent [fishermen] called us this year who we hadn’t heard from in years wanting to reopen their accounts, but we’re just overwhelmed and haven’t been able to accommodate them," Brew said.

depenner@vancouversun.com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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