VANCOUVER - The Fisheries Department says low salmon returns to British Columbia's Fraser River mean Indigenous groups have priority access to the fish as conservation efforts are underway.

Jennifer Nener, director of salmon management for the Pacific region of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says some Indigenous communities that were evacuated during wildfires in the Interior missed the opportunity to catch fish to sustain them through the winter.

Nener says the department held an 18-hour monitored fishery around the mouth of the Fraser River until Friday morning, allowing Indigenous groups to fish for pink and chum salmon and keep mortally wounded or injured sockeye while healthy sockeye had to be released.

She says the department forecast a low to moderate return of 4.5 million salmon but about 1.5 million fish are expected this year.

That compares with a historic low of about 850,000 fish last year and a high return of 20 million fish in 2014.

Nener says it's not known why there are fewer fish this year but warm ocean conditions resulting in a changing food supply for juvenile fish is being considered as a possible factor.