Up and down the West Coast commercial fishermen are filling harbours waiting and hoping for an opening to fish Chinook salmon.
Despite preliminary estimates of a huge return, the best in decades, the fish haven’t shown up as predicted so nets that are many people’s livelihoods haven’t even gone into the water this season. But some optimism is showing up now for those who’ve been struggling.
Surrounded by boats in Port Alberni’s harbour all waiting for the commercial opening for the Chinook salmon fishery Stephanie Cook is doing what she can to stop worrying.
“It’s very stressful, very stressful wondering if you’re going to catch any or if there’s any out there,” says Cook aboard her boat.
The 30-year-old from Alert Bay has never faced a year like this before. One that’s testing even the most experienced on this coast.
Estimates were for a huge Chinook Salmon return up and down the west coast, the best in 20 years Fisheries and Oceans estimates suggested but failing to see those numbers materialize, officials slashed that number last week by 2/3 for Nootka Sound and in half for Port Alberni shutting down many fisherman’s hopes of a commercial opening at all.
“It’s pretty scarce ,” says Cook. “There’s not a lot of fish out there.”
But the tides may be turning in the wake of a food fishery by Tseshaht and Hupaceseth First Nations in Port Alberni, that’s revealed a surprising surplus of Chinook salmon have suddenly appeared.
“The fishery last night was better than I think everybody expected,” says Andy Olson of Tseshaht Fisheries. “We’re hoping that that signals that their downgrade was not accurate.”
Totes packed high with freshly caught massive chinook are loaded up one after another into cars of celebratory band members.
“It’s fully ingrained in who they are right fishing is what they do and sharing their fish with their community is a big part of that,” says Olson.
The food fishery gets first dibs on stocks, but it can also be an indicator of the health of the fishery. So Fisheries and Oceans is now examining this new information. Determining whether it’s simply a pulse of fish returning in a bunch, or the start of the wave that was earlier predicted to be the best in decades.
“I think the weather has got the fish coming up the river more with the weather,” says Olson.
Buoying Cook’s and many other fisher’s hopes, that their packed bags and boats just might still go to use after all.