The history of Fraser sockeye salmon has been documented in numerous ways. The 1949 film below is about the Fraser River, its salmon, and communities they support.
Hell’s Gate Slide
Hell’s Gate is the name of an extremely narrow gorge in the Fraser River Canyon, 130 miles from the sea. In the early 1900’s railroad construction and blasting in this part of the canyon had dumped large amounts of rock into the already narrow gorge, culminating in a devastating rock slide in February 1914 that almost dammed the river and blocked the passage of sockeye salmon en-route to their spawning grounds in central BC.
1920’s & 1930’s
In the years following the Hell’s Gate slide large amounts of rock and debris were removed. But the run sizes continued to be only a small fraction of those that occurred up through 1913. The drastic decline of all runs, on all cycles, along with increased fishing pressure in both countries, created an urgent need for international cooperation.
Sockeye Salmon Convention
May 26, 1930
The first formal salmon agreement between Canada and the U.S. was a convention for the protection, preservation and extension of the sockeye salmon fishery of the Fraser River system signed in Washington D.C. on May 26th, 1930 and finally ratified in 1937. Its singular purpose of restoration of Fraser River sockeye would eventually become an outstanding example of cooperation between the two countries.
Establishment of the IPSFC
October 28, 1937
The Convention established the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission with offices at Sixth and Columbia in New Westminster, BC, two blocks up from the Fraser River. Article II of the Convention established that the Commission shall consist of six members, three from the United States and three from the Dominion of Canada. An Advisory Committee was established representing stakeholders to advise on conditions on the fishing grounds. Dr. W.F. Thompson was appointed as the first Director of the IPSFC.
1938 – 1939
Within two years the Commission was well on its way to establishing the basis for an historical and statistical analysis of the runs. It had established procedures and programs to provide biological and engineering information for decisions that would have significant long-term impacts on the sockeye salmon of the Fraser system.
Hells Gate Studies
1939 – 1942
For many years after the slide at Hell’s Gate it was uncertain if a passage problem still existed and if upstream migration was still being hampered. Extensive tagging experiments carried out by IPSFC biologists proved that depending on migration timing and river levels at the time of migration, some stocks were able to pass Hell’s Gate safely while others were being driven to extinction. Commission engineers were tasked with developing plans and even a scale model for eventual construction of massive fishways – a permanent solution for correcting salmon migration problems at Hell’s Gate.
Stock ID Studies
1930 – 1950
Results of the tagging programs in both salt and fresh water areas was less than complete, but did provide information used later for setting fishing regulations. Tagging information was supplemented by more precise stock identification obtained from scale analyses, an identification method which began in the late 1950’s.
Spawning Ground Enumeration
1938 – 1948
The Commission immediately recognized that information on the number of spawning sockeye in each spawning system was necessary to manage the runs on a scientific basis. Dr. W.F. Thompson stated in 1939 that “Foremost among the necessities is an accurate system of estimating the runs, and the numbers which escape to the spawning grounds of each race”.
Commercial Catch Statistics
1938 – 1939
An accurate statistical system to determine commercial catches daily by gear and area for each country was required to fulfil Convention requirements to divide the catch equally between the two countries. To collect statistics, observers were stationed at Steveston, Bellingham and Anacortes. A system of records or logs on catch numbers and locations was kept by fishermen. Accurate information on numbers landed at each cannery was also required. (page 147)
1945 – 1950
The first Hell’s Gate fishways were constructed during World War II for a total cost of $1.47M shared equally by the United States and Canada. The scope of this undertaking was enormous, risky and to some, controversial. The fishway design was new and untested for a project of this magnitude. This was a gigantic decision for the Commission and the two Parties. The Commissions biological and engineering divisions went on to construct additional fishways at Bridge River Rapids, Yale and the Farwell Canyon on the Chilcotin River in BC. Most of the fishways had to be built during winter when river levels were low and this necessitated working under severe cold weather conditions.
Pink Salmon Protocol Added
July 3, 1957
By the 1950’s Fraser River pink salmon runs were considerably diminished compared to the abundance of the runs before the Hell’s Gate slide. There was a general feeling that the IPSFC’s responsibilities should be broadened to cover this stock. The Sockeye Salmon Fisheries Convention was amended to include Fraser River pink salmon in 1957. The agreement is commonly known as the Pink Salmon Protocol.
Spawning Channel Construction
The first studies that led to production-type spawning channels were conducted at the IPSFC’s Quesnel Field Station in the early 1950’s. It was found that sockeye fry survival rates in channels were four to eight times greater than in the wild if proper waterflow and gravel were used. Five sockeye spawning channels were built between 1963 and 1973 at Pitt River, Seton Creek, Weaver Creek, Gates Creek and the Nadina River.
Dissolution of the IPSFC / Transfer of Fraser duties to Fraser Panel and Secretariat
The International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission was dissolved on December 31, 1985. Under the terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, management of Fraser River sockeye and pink salmon fisheries became the responsibility of the Fraser River Panel beginning in 1986 and the IPSFC Fisheries management division was transferred intact to the Pacific Salmon Commission at their new offices on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver.
Yukon River Panel Established
The Yukon River Salmon Interim Agreement was signed establishing the Yukon River Panel. These negotiations also resulted in the development of preliminary escapement goals and harvest share arrangements and established the Panel’s annual $1.2M Restoration and Enhancement Fund. The R&E Fund was created to support projects and programs designed to rebuild Canadian-origin stocks of salmon and improve management of those stocks.
In June 1999 after a series of intense negotiations to resolve years of dispute, the Parties reached a comprehensive agreement that included new chapters of Annex IV of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the creation of the Transboundary Panel, a new Chinook regime that replaced fixed catch ceilings with an abundance-based management approach, and the establishment of the Northern and Southern Endowment Funds.
Endowment Funds Established
The 1999 Agreement created two endowment funds, the Northern Boundary and Transboundary Rivers Restoration and Enhancement Fund, and the Southern Boundary Restoration and Enhancement Fund. Two bilateral committees, the Northern and Southern Fund Committees, were established to administer investments and expenditure of the funds. The funds are invested in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds and only the earnings from investments can be spent. The earnings support projects in either country to improve fishery management, restore habitat, and enhance wild salmon runs.
Yukon River Salmon Agreement
Dec 4, 2002
The Yukon River Salmon Agreement receives official recognition as an annex of the PST from the U.S. and Canadian governments. The Agreement becomes chapter 8 of the PST setting out a distinct management regime for Yukon River salmon adhering to the broad science-based management principals of the PST. Uniquely, the Agreement also assigns many of the functions and responsibilities of the Pacific Salmon Commission to the Yukon River Panel.
Poor Fraser River Sockeye Return
The total abundance of sockeye salmon in 2009 was 1,590,000 adults, well below the number of fish forecast to return. It was the smallest return on the 2009 cycle since record keeping began in the late 1800s, and the second smallest on any cycle since 1947. Before 1913-14, when rockslides caused by railway construction severely blocked fish passage at Hells Gate, the 2009 cycle was by far the largest with estimated annual abundances exceeding 20 million and even reaching 40 million fish.
August 22, 2013
In 2013 Canada and the United States marked a century of international commitment to share and sustain their Pacific salmon runs with a ceremony at Hell’s Gate.
2016 Record Low Return
The total 2016 Fraser sockeye return was estimated to be 855,000 adults. While this estimate fell within the range of the pre-season forecast, it represents the lowest return since records were kept in 1893. The poor return led to severe harvest restrictions that had dire consequences for Tribal, First Nation, and other fishing communities that rely on Fraser sockeye for their sustenance and livelihoods. However, there are some encouraging results that put this return into perspective.
The 4-year average sockeye returns have certainly decreased from peaks in the early 1990’s, but the average has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years and not very different from average returns in the 1970’s that preceded this peak. This indicates that the Fraser River sockeye population is not at risk of collapse, and large returns are forecast to occur in 2018 (the cycle that produced the 100-year record return in 2010).
In short, we have recently observed both the largest (2010) and the smallest (2016) returns in the last 100 years. These fluctuations underscore the importance of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and its goal to conserve scarce populations while allowing harvest of healthy runs through adaptive bilateral management.
The Big Bar rockslide
On June 23, 2019, a significant landslide was discovered in a narrow section of the Fraser River (Figure 1). The rockslide created a five-meter waterfall that many of the Fraser River salmon populations needed to migrate past in order to reach their spawning grounds. The rockslide impacted 81% of the total Fraser sockeye run (100% Early Stuart, 60% Early Summer and 90% Summer run), Chinook salmon (87% Sping 52 and 83% Summer 52), coho (12% Interior Fraser) and pink salmon (5-30%). The rockslide created a physical barrier that impeded upstream migration, especially early in the season when water discharge levels were too high to allow natural migration past the slide.
The response to the slide in the summer of 2019 included: the partial creation of a natural fishway through rock-manipulations, fish transport by helicopter and truck, and the collection of broodstock for emergency enhancement of Early Stuart sockeye. As discharge levels decreased over the summer and water levels declined, an increasing proportion of the run was able to make it past the slide naturally. In the 2019 fall and 2020 winter season, additional remediation work included breaking up and removing rocks to improve natural fish passage and the construction and deployment of a concrete fishway and flexible, pressurised fish transport tube.
Further information on the Big Bar rockslide can be found on the following website: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/fish/aquatic-habitat-management/fish-passage/big-bar-landslide-incident
Record Low Fraser River Sockeye Returns
In the last eleven years we have observed the largest, 2010, and three of the smallest returns, 2016, 2019 and 2020 (highlighted in red, Figure 1) of the last 100 years. In 2016, the total Fraser River sockeye return was estimated to be 855,000 sockeye, and at that time it was the lowest return on record. Unfortunately, this record was broken both in 2019 (493,000 sockeye) and 2020 (291,000 sockeye). A rockslide in the Fraser River at Big Bar in 2019 created additional migration difficulties for returning salmon and further exacerbated declining spawning numbers.
In 2019, marine survival rates and freshwater survival rates en route to the spawning grounds were expected to be low and in 2020 above average water temperatures both within the river and in the ocean contributed to the low productivity and subsequent low number of returning sockeye. However, there is still no clear explanation why survival rates turned out to be the lowest on record for these two years. Figure 2 shows the survival rate for Chilko Lake sockeye which is indicative of the poor survival for other Fraser River sockeye stocks. For further information on the possible causes of the low survival rate of Fraser River sockeye please see the following document: (https://waves-vagues.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/4088546x.pdf ).
Investigations into poor returns have been ongoing since Canada established the Cohen Commission of Inquiry in 2009, which at that time was one of the poorest returns on record. Updates on the implementation of the 75 recommendations from the report are available at the following address: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/cohen/report-rapport-eng.htm.