An estimated 4.5 million sockeye salmon are returning to the Fraser River system this summer and the run size has fishery managers cautiously optimistic about the survival of the iconic fish.
Granted, it's a tiny fraction of the record 30 million sockeye that returned last year.
But sockeye run on a four-year cycle, so managers aren't comparing this run against last year – which was the high end of the cycle and was further amplified by mysteriously favourable ocean conditions.
Instead, Pacific Salmon Commission chief biologist Mike Lapointe notes these salmon are the spawn of the sockeye that migrated back in 2007 – a year when less than two million sockeye returned and the fishery was shut down.
That was the start of three years of similarly low returns that led the federal government to appoint the Cohen Commission to investigate the decline.
"The sockeye run is certainly better than forecast," Lapointe said, noting it was expected to be as low as 3.1 million.
To now see more than twice as many sockeye four years later is "pretty positive" and might be the beginning of a turnaround for the runs that migrate on this part of the cycle, Lapointe said.
Unlike 2007, this year's return has allowed a fishery while ensuring enough salmon get upriver to spawn.
An estimated 1.6 million sockeye have been caught, including 790,000 by aboriginal fisheries, 432,000 by Canadian commercial boats and 265,000 by U.S. fishermen.
A quarter of the incoming sockeye – 1.1 million salmon – are headed for Harrison Lake.
"It's continuing to have really good returns and do its own thing," Lapointe said of Harrison sockeye.
The Cohen Inquiry has heard evidence that the Harrison run spends less time in freshwater and migrates around the west side of Vancouver Island. Most other Fraser-bound sockeye tend to go around the east side where they pass by fish farms that activists blame for spreading disease or parasites.
An estimated 17.5 million pink salmon are also returning this year.
Lapointe said increased demand and higher prices for the traditionally lower value salmon has prompted more commercial fishing for them than usual.
Nearly six million pinks have now been caught, he said.