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Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run struggles to hit escapement target

Laurel Andrews
More than 20 million sockeye salmon have passed through Bristol Bay this season, which is on target to hit its escapement goals. But a capsized vessel continues to leak fluid into one of the bay's rivers, closing a commercial fishery that has lost at least $100,000 due to the closure since Friday. Courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game

More than 20 million sockeye salmon have passed through Bristol Bay this season, and the massive run is on target to hit its escapement goals. But a vessel that capsized in the Igushik continues to leak fluid into one of the bay's rivers, closing a commercial fishery that has lost at least $100,000 due to a closure in effect since Friday.

While total runs for Bristol Bay are a little over 20 million, that remains a little short of the 26 million pre-season run forecast. But "we're not quite done yet," said Paul Salomon, area biologist for the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

An estimated 14 million salmon have been caught so far in Bristol Bay, by 1,600 drift net permits and 900 set net permits licensed to work the bountiful waters.

Salomon said Bristol Bay is seeing a “small surge of fish toward the end of the season,” making it likely the runs will achieve their escapement goals -- that is the number of fish that make it upriver to spawn. Commercial fishing wraps up at the end of July.

Salomon said that both the Egegik and Ugashik rivers will hit their escapement goals. “As a manager, that’s my main priority for the season,” he said.

Still, the red salmon run is in a “low-production cycle right now,” Salomon said. In the mid-2000s, runs of more than 40 million salmon surged into Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay runs have been about half that in the past two years, hovering around 20 to 25 million. The environmental system driving the return of fish is “complex,” he noted, and the return regularly yo-yos up and down. 

Any number of factors from ocean conditions to river flooding can change the survival rate of salmon, said Tim Sands, area biologist for the state's commercial fisheries division on the west side of Bristol Bay.

Sands tracks the Nushagak, Igushik and Togiak Rivers, where the salmon run is “really winding down.” The Nushagak's salmon run is better than last year, but “below average overall,” while the Togiak River’s escapement is on track. The Igushik River remains closed because a vessel that capsized in 18 feet of water last month continues to leak fluids into the bay.

The 78-foot Lone Star capsized June 30 after the anchor chain got caught in its tranductor line, damaging the hull. The accident closed commercial fisheries until July 1 -- but fishing was closed again on July 5, due to leaking fluid. It has remained closed.  

The vessel sank with a reported 35,000 pounds of fish, 14,000 gallons of diesel, 150 gallons of lube oil, 150 gallons of hydraulic fluid and 250 gallons of gasoline aboard. The amount of petroleum spilled is unknown, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Situation Report on Wednesday.

Although no sheen was reported to be flowing from the vessel on Tuesday, a 2-mile sheen re-appeared Wednesday, Sands said. “We have to keep that area closed,” he said.

While Sands couldn’t say exactly how much the commercial fishery has lost in revenue, it is “certainly more than $100,000. It’s a big deal for a small community like that,” he said.

Sands remains optimistic with salvage crews on-scene working to stop leaks. “We got word last night that all the vents have been plugged up,” he said. The DEC estimated those leaks contaminated around 27,000 pounds of fish, KTUU reports, which were disposed of about 12 miles from shore.

Villagers fishing upstream are still able to catch salmon during the commercial fishery closure, however, Sands said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com