South coast salmon returns.

With the end of November in sight it is fair to assume that around the BC south coast the returns of salmon to area rivers are all but over. There will always be exceptions of course, variable run-timing being one of the wonders of salmon biology, but other than for a few late coho and chums the spawning period for 2017 is a wrap with only the fine tuning of escapement assessments left to complete.

Even though the final numbers won’t be determined for a couple of months as mark recapture data and the like are calibrated for those species and rivers where such programs exist, the preliminary information available now for the Strait of Georgia and Johnstone Strait region gives a pretty good idea of what the returns look like. And as always they are a fairly mixed bag, with successes and disappointments spread around this area.

Solidly in the first category are the returns of chinook salmon to east coast Vancouver Island rivers. The Campbell/Quinsam watershed has seen largest return in a dozen years with preliminary estimates in the 8 – 10,000 fish range. One puzzle is the proportionately low number observed in the Campbell River itself compared with the tributary Quinsam, possibly a result of habitat lost in the sustained and extreme high water event a year ago, an awful lot of gravel was shifted from the favoured upper river spawning locations.

Moving down island both the Puntledge and Big Qualicum rivers had fall-run chinook returns well above average, at 12 and 10,000 fish respectively. The Little Qualicum return was right on both the 4 year and 12 year averages at just over 4,000 adult fish while it looks like the return to the Cowichan River continues the strong rebuilding trend observed there. As a large watershed that is one of the chinook indicator stocks under the Canada/US Pacific salmon Treaty, a comprehensive mark recapture and deadpitch assessment program is conducted to try and estimate exactly how many chinook return to this river each year. At this point it seems almost certain that the count will be higher than in 2016, which was the first year in a long time that the escapement had exceeded the target of 6,500 adult (age-3 and older) fish. Fingers crossed that there will be more good news to follow in the not so distant future.

Two ECVI rivers host summer-run chinook populations of note, the Puntledge and Nanaimo. At 1,029 fish the first was between the 4 and 12-year averages for the stock while at 960 fish the Nanaimo summer chinook return exceeded both. Elsewhere the Salmon and Phillips rivers had slightly above average fall-run chinook returns while the chinook count to the Nimpkish River is less than average.

While I don’t have any exact data for chinook returns to WCVI rivers my understanding is that there has been an improvement to returns generally, with significant numbers to the enhanced systems in particular. The one possible negative is that the west coast rivers have been pounded by heavy rain recently, more so than the east side of Vancouver Island, with rivers becoming very high. There might be significant damage to salmon eggs, especially as they for the most part won’t yet have become eyed-up, at which point they become considerably more resistant to damage from shock, for example with shifting gravel. Time will tell.

Less encouraging this fall has been the return of coho salmon to rivers across the same geographic area. They are uniformly lower everywhere, with only the Big Qualicum showing anything close to a long-term average number. After more than two decades of generally poor marine conditions for them they are showing signs of a double whammy courtesy of climate change, which is evermore stressing these fish in the freshwater phase of their lives. Their extended freshwater life-history in combination with increasingly frequent prolonged summer droughts causing lower (or non-existent) water flows with associated higher temperatures is a major challenge to survival, without even considering often unfavourable conditions at sea.

The coho that returned this fall went to sea in the spring and early summer of 2016, which in this part of the world was dry and warm, if not hot. Particularly in small streams there’s a likelihood that many coho pre-smolts became trapped in up river habitats, unable to migrate out to sea. The 2017 return of coho to the small stream I look out for is one of the worst in the 25 years I’ve been engaged with this system and I suspect that the same holds true for many smaller watersheds.

Black Creek may look like a pretty unremarkable river system, meandering across mostly low gradient land just up island from Courtenay. It is however the last remaining wild coho indicator stream in the Georgia Basin, with the information derived from the counting fence just above tidewater at the Miracle Beach Park entrance having great significance for the management of fisheries that may impact wild coho around southern BC. At 605 adult coho (age-3), the 2017 return is about the lowest in 20 years, despite no directed fishery on these fish. The one encouraging factor is the enormous return of age-2 male coho in 2017, the so-called jacks. At close to 5,000 of these fish the count is about five times the average for this small watershed, suggesting those fish that went to sea this past spring did very well. Elsewhere returns of jack coho where they are assessed are strong, although not to the same degree, all of which augurs well for a strong return of adult fish next year.

Like the adult coho the pink salmon that returned this fall also went to sea in 2016 and similarly failed to live up to expectations, with lower than average returns across the area. For sure in my small creek the return of pinks was the worst ever, a particular disappointment after a respectable return in 2015.

Chum salmon did slightly better than pinks or coho but that isn’t saying much. A few systems such as the Nanaimo and Cowichan rivers had good returns but more widely the returns were less than average, some markedly so. The chum return to the Little Qualicum was less than 10% of the escapement target, with the Big Q. reaching barely 25% of the target. On the Puntledge River, which has a large chum enhancement program, the escapement was slightly over half the target.

So that’s a quick look at salmon returns along the east coast of Vancouver Island and some nearby areas – it could have been worse!