Last year, the sockeye salmon run to Bristol Bay came early by six or seven days. It also peaked early, and many fishermen missed out. This year, the fleet was prepared for a repeat, which didn't happen.
Fishermen were anxious and a little antsy leading up to the first sockeye openers, which seemed a long time coming as the sockeye trickled their way into the rivers. Based on catch numbers from the Port Moller test fishery downriver, and the sonar and tower counts upriver, drift boat skippers carefully weighed which district to register in.
Then came the reds. Bristol Bay fishermen went from a total catch of 307,000 sockeye on June 24 to 1.4 million the next day, followed by three consecutive days of over 2 million sockeye harvested. Processors all across Bristol Bay were "plugged," and had to restrict fishermen's delivery sizes or enact their own openings and closures for their fleet.
"We do not normally see it ramp up like that," said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's manager for the Nushagak and Togiak districts Tim Sands, speaking Tuesday. "We went from really slow escapement, like 10,000 a day, to 22,000 a day on the Wood River, to all of a sudden 200,000 in one day. And then it doubled the day after that."
More than half a million sockeye were counted as escapement on the Wood River on Saturday, the second highest daily amount ever.
On the grounds, fishermen were not caught off guard by the size of their catches, but they were taken aback to hear from buyers that they would be limited on how much they could deliver. Processors like Peter Pan Seafoods in Dillingham even shut down their fishermen for whole tide cycles even as Fish and Game had the fishery wide open for harvest.
John Sackton at Seafoodnews.com reported that both University of Washington and the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute raised their forecasts for the size of the total run following the big catches and escapements over the weekend. BBSRI, reports Sackton, estimates the total season run will be 30.9 million fish, up significantly from Fish and Game's preseason forecast of 26.5 million.
"Most observers say that now either the run is early, or it will be greater than forecast," wrote Sackton.
As of Monday, the total run stood at 17.5 million fish, with 11.1 million landed, 5.2 million counted as escapement to area rivers, and another 1 million still in-river.
Wood River over-escaped
The Nushagak District manager has the tricky task of balancing two river systems, the Nushagak and the Wood, which have very different returns of salmon. Whereas the Nushagak River is estimated to see 1.17 million sockeye return, with the large majority in the larger-sized 2.3 age class, the Wood River is estimated to see a return of 6.89 million. There, mostly smaller fish in the 1.2 and 1.3 age classes are expected.
By allowing fishermen to fish the whole district, the manager may struggle to get enough escapement in the Nushagak. If the manager slows the fishing effort for the sake of the Nushagak, escapement up the Wood may really take off.
Tim Sands was able to avoid dumping the whole Nushagak District fleet into the Wood River Special Harvest Area this year and had escapement in both rivers more or less under control. He opened the Wood River as a rare optional fishing district first to driftnet fishermen, who were behind their allocation, then to setnetters. As of Tuesday, the Wood remained opened to setnet fishing indefinitely. The non-overlapping optional fishing for both gear groups made for rather calm fishing in a river known for being anything but.
But the Wood still over-escaped, big time. As of Tuesday morning, total escapement was at 1.8 million fish, quite a bit above the 1.1 million goal, with perhaps plenty more to go.
"There wasn't the ability to harvest those fish in the Wood River like we thought there was going to be," said Sands. "There were issues outside of our control."
The issue outside of his control proved to be a plugged up Peter Pan Seafoods, which is the only market for a large majority of west-side setnetters. Peter Pan established its own openings and then set an initial tight limit of 2,500 pounds per delivery per permit holder.
Hundreds of thousands of sockeye passed by while Peter Pan fishermen stood by with their nets out of the water.
"There's nothing biologically bad about going over the escapement goal," said Sands. "But economically it's an opportunity to harvest fish that we're missing out on. ."
More to come
There may be a substantial amount of fishing left to do, if the indications coming out of the Port Moller Test Fishery are correct. After seeing the catches drop off substantially last week, the catches picked back up by Monday and held strong for the next several days. The travel time for sockeye from Port Moller to the fishing districts is five to seven days, so fisherman may yet see big slugs of fish in area rivers.
Observers like Tim Sands are waiting on another genetic analysis, but do anticipate more good fishing this season.
"The catches have been good out there and I've got to believe we have more fish coming to this district," he said.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.
By DAVE BENDINGER
Bristol Bay Times