Richmond Gets Ready for the Largest Sockeye Salmon Run in History

Indian Arm, outside of Vancouver, BC.
Indian Arm, outside of Vancouver, BC.

What is potentially one of the largest returns of sockeye salmon in recorded history is soon to make its way up the Fraser River in British Columbia. An unprecedented 72 million sockeye salmon (the progeny of the 2010 run) are predicted to return to the Fraser River in 2014 — more than double the record-setting 30-million sockeye salmon return in 2010, the largest in nearly 100 years.

Ideally positioned at the mouth of the Fraser River, Steveston village in southwest Richmond — fondly known at the turn of the 20th century as “Salmonopolis” — is the best spot to catch a glimpse of the extraordinary salmon run and participate in fun, all-ages salmon-themed activities and events during the month of August.

Where and When to See Salmon

The sockeye salmon spawning season begins in mid-July and lasts until mid-September with the bulk of the run beginning to arrive in the Fraser River in early August. What does a 72-million sockeye salmon return look like? Imagine a river so full of sparkling silver sockeye that onlookers can practically catch the jumping salmon with their bare hands. As the sockeye swim up-river to spawning grounds they’re known for their heads turning green and their bodies going a brilliant shade of red. Angler’s tip: salmon watching can be greatly improved by wearing polarized sunglasses, which minimize light refraction.

From land or boat, there are countless spots to watch and photograph the salmon return in the historic fishing village of Steveston. Walk or bike through Garry Point Park and along Imperial Landing to find 6.5 acres of waterfront park and trails. Visit the village’s popular fisherman’s wharf to watch fishermen haul massive loads of salmon into Canada’s largest commercial fishing harbour. Or jump aboard one of Steveston’s two whale-watching outfitters that offer daily wildlife viewing tours. While onboard, see salmon leaping alongside porpoises, sea lions, seals, eagles and majestic Orca whales.

Top Spots to Eat Salmon

Of the five species of salmon — sockeye, chinook, coho, pink and chum — sockeye is favoured for its dark red meat and high oil content. Throughout August and into September, the menus of restaurants throughout Richmond, as well as those along Steveston’s wooden waterfront boardwalk, will feature fresh, local sockeye salmon. Some of Steveston’s must-try dishes this August are the Wild BC Salmon Fish & Chips from the aptly named Sockeye City Grill, Salmon Rillette tapas from Tapenade Bistro and the West Coast Salmon Chowder from Blue Canoe Waterfront Restaurant.

Where to Buy Fresh Salmon

To purchase whole fish at astonishing prices, head directly to Steveston’s Public Wharf. Don’t be daunted by long lineups during spawning season — they move quickly and the deals and unbeatable freshness are worth the wait. After purchasing fresh salmon, walk along the waterfront to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site (adjacent to the Public Wharf) where volunteers will be cleaning salmon by donation. Look for the big red Gulf of Georgia Cannery tent to see if the ‘cleaners are in’. This special program is available only during the commercial sockeye season.

Or, get in the game and fish for sockeye from Richmond’s No. 7 Road Pier, a restored former barge-loading pier (BC tidal fishing licence required).

All-Ages Salmon-Themed Activities and Events

The popular Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site is one of the only historically intact salmon canneries in the world. Once known as the “Monster Cannery” among the more than 15 canneries that occupied Cannery Row on the Steveston waterfront, the site was used as a cannery, reduction plant, and net loft beginning in 1894 and opened to the public as an interactive museum in 1994. Visitors can learn about salmon and the canning process on guided tours offered at the Cannery seven days a week, in addition to special weekend-only events in celebration of its 120-year anniversary. Until Sept. 7, take the Cannery’s Salmon Taste Challenge and compare two different species of canned salmon. Also on Saturdays and Sundays, visitors can take part in the Cannery’s special Fish Tales event. Meet local salmon fishermen who will be sharing stories and leading demonstrations including knot tying, baiting, net minding and more.