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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada will launch an investigation into why far fewer sockeye salmon than scientists had predicted returned to the Fraser River on the Pacific Coast this summer.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the judicial inquiry on Thursday, saying the federal government was concerned about the declining sockeye population.
Federal government scientists had predicted that as many as 13 million sockeye salmon would return to the river this year to breed, but it is now estimated that only about 1.4 million fish actually returned.
The collapse gutted the commercial Fraser sockeye fishing season, and prompted the government of the West Coast province of British Columbia and federal opposition parties to ask Ottawa to investigate whether federal officials have mismanaged salmon stocks.
Details of the inquiry were expected to be announced on Friday in Vancouver.
Salmon have long been at the center of diplomatic spats between Canada and the United States, with Canadian fishermen often accusing their U.S. rivals of taking too large a portion of the catch.
Division of the dwindling salmon catch is also the center of a bitter dispute within Canada involving aboriginal, recreational and non-aboriginal commercial fishermen.
Some environmentalists, who praised the announcement of the inquiry, have said that aquaculture farms along Canada's Pacific Coast endanger wild fish stocks -- a charge that the fish farm operators deny.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, editing by Peter Galloway