VANCOUVER - Predictions for this year's salmon fishery on British Columbia's Fraser River are so massive there's no historical data to use to forecast the many millions of sockeye expected to return.
But no one involved in the fishery would dare celebrate early as the ghost of the disastrous 2009 Fraser River fishery continues to haunt their memories.
Five years after the collapse of the run that prompted a $26-million federal inquiry, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is forecasting a summer return ranging from a low of 7.3 million to a high of 72.5 million, settling for planning purposes on 23 million.
In contrast, the department forecast that some 10 million sockeye would return to the Fraser River in 2009, but only about 1.4 million showed up.
Ken Malloway, grand chief of the Sto:lo Nation, which fishes a stretch of the river starting in Surrey, B.C., said federal officials have made some big blunders over forecasts in the past.
He said there have always been concerns, uncertainty and mistakes about sockeye predictions and returns.
"People remember it and people are concerned about it, but you know people don't want to dwell on it," he said of the 2009 season. "People are mostly optimistic."
Malloway said he believes federal officials may even be too conservative by settling on 23 million.
Jennifer Nener, Fisheries and Oceans Canada's area director for the lower Fraser River, said the figure of 23 million is based on what's known as a 50-per-cent probability. At 23 million, there is a 50 per cent chance of the returns being higher and a 50 per cent chance of returns being lower, she said.
"The forecast is just that: it's a forecast, and there is a lot of uncertainty in that forecast " she said.
Complicating the forecast, though, are the facts that sockeye return to the Fraser in four-year cycles, and there was a large return in 2010 — almost 30 million.
"We had such high numbers of spawners in 2010," she said. "We're well outside the range of historical data that are used to actually model the forecast returns."
Officials have broken the run up into four different management groupings.
The smallest group is known as the early Stuart run, named after the watershed from where they come, and the forecast is for 300,000, she said.
Nener said the early summer and the summer runs are next two groups and the predictions are for 4.1 million and 5.6 to 5.7 million.
The final group is the late run, and Nener said that forecast is set at 12.8 to 12.9 million.
While a test fishery began on the river June 20, there is no current commercial or recreational fishery on the Fraser, said Nener, adding it will be weeks before officials make a decision on when to open a fishery.
"Openings for First Nations' food and social, ceremonial, as well as recreational and commercial fisheries really depend upon what's actually happening out there in the environment," she said.
Rob Morley of the Canadian Fishing Company, a firm that harvests, processes and markets seafood, said much has changed since 2009, and sockeye survival rates have improved in the past three years thanks to better ocean conditions.
Yet uncertainty is a constant in the industry, he added.
"Obviously, you're always concerned that things can go wrong, and in the fish business you have to expect the unexpected, but, you know, we think those conditions are behind us at this point, given what we have seen."
Even if 20-million sockeye return, it will still be a good fishery, he said, noting that in 2010 fish processors were scrambling to handle what was available.
This year, though, Morley said he's concerned with the hype associated with the upper end of the forecast, the numbers past 70 million.
"If only 20 or 25 million show up ... somehow people will say we've lost a bunch of fish again," he said. "I think if we get a run of 20 or 25 million we should be very happy."
Sockeye have dark red coloured meat and a high oil content. They range in weight from 2.2 to 3.1 kilograms, but can reach over six kilograms.
When the fish return to the river they're know for turning a brilliant shade of red with green heads.