Longtime Courtenay fisherman Larry Peterson noticed coho are back in the area this year, and he’s wondering why.
“In the old days I used to catch 60 coho in a year,” says Peterson, who has been fishing in Comox Valley waters for nearly 45 years. “Then it changed — after ’93 I would catch anywhere from eight to 15 a year, and if I got 15 I was happy. This year I’m 25 pushing 30 and have taken most of August off to do other things like fish ling cod and pink salmon.”
This year, Peterson has caught coho off Kitty Coleman and Point Holmes, as well as areas around Campbell River. Peterson says everyone’s been catching them this year, and the question of why they’ve returned is at the front of people’s minds.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans area director for South Coast B.C. Andrew Thomson agrees there’s been a rise in coho this year.
“What we’ve seen in South Coast B.C., all around South Coast, but particularly the Strait of Georgia and off the West Coast is significant increases in abundance of coho, to the point that we’re looking at numbers of coho, chinook in the south coast areas that we haven’t seen for 20 years, if not more,” says Thomson, pointing to good ocean conditions over the past year as a likely reason the fish are abundant.
“The things that are going to impact juvenile salmon when they leave the river system are going to be food — sometimes toxicology, but that’s rare — and also temperatures, and predator abundance,” he continues. “It appears they must have had a very good physical environment, so there was no toxins or other things in the water, but also it must have been much improved food access because in order to see this survival rate they would had to put on weight quite fast.”
Thomson says DFO staff have been searching for factors that could have led to the increase this year. DFO will also conduct a post-season review, and have been monitoring the docks and doing creel surveys to try an get an accurate count of the fish.
Peterson says he first spotted coho in March and suggested the fish overwintered in the Strait, rather than travelling elsewhere to find food, but Thomson says DFO hasn’t confirmed that yet.
“We don’t have data points that we’ve analyzed from this season looking at whether or not they did overwinter or they’ve been around longer,” he says. “But, I mean that’ll certainly be one of the factors we’ll look into at the end of the season to see if there’s some relation to their residency in the Strait of Georgia.”
He also says it’s too early to tell if the abundance of coho this year is related to the conservation measures, like restrictions on catch rates, put in place over the years.
“One year’s data point doesn’t give us that and we’ll have to look at it over a period of time,” he says adding he hopes the conservation measures have contributed to the return.
As for whether the coho numbers will be good next year too, Thomson can’t say yet.
“We certainly hope so,” he says. “It’s far too early at the moment to be definitive on the long-term effects but it’s been such a dramatic improvement I think we’re all just grinning and hoping that this is a long-term trend.”
DFO is still assessing coho numbers in the Puntledge and Courtenay rivers and has not opened the fishery as of Wednesday. The daily catch limit of coho in the ocean is two fish per day, hatchery marked only.