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This year's Bristol Bay's sockeye run far exceeded forecasts

Dave BendingerBristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman

As of Tuesday, the estimated total run of sockeye into Bristol Bay waters stood just under 39 million fish, well beyond the Department of Fish and Game preseason forecast of 26.5 million.

The run appeared to peak twice, and seems to be on the waning end of an impressive tail that provided substantial harvest opportunity for commercial fishermen around the bay.

The July 12 interpretation done of catches at the Port Moller Test Fishery through July 10 upped the estimated size of the 2014 forecast further. “It seems unlikely that the run will not break 40 million, and more likely it will come in between 40 and 45 million,” wrote Scott Raborn of the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute.

The lion’s share of this year’s run, and much of the later season opportunity, was to be had in the Naknek-Kvichak district. The meager 190,000 sockeye caught Monday pushed the season’s total harvest towards 14 million. With another 5.7 million fish counted as escapement, the total run in the district is poised to easily top 20 million sockeye.

“We’re definitely slowing down now,” said area manager Travis Elison, speaking Tuesday, “but it’s been a heck of a run so far.”

Elison said it looks like the last good bump of fish hit the district around July 12, when about 700,000 sockeye were caught, and is now tapering off.

On three separate days this season, more than a million sockeye were caught by district fishermen.

“The first of those days, June 27, seemed to catch everybody off guard, and most of the processors were plugged up,” said Elison.

Big catches were also had that day in the Nushagak and Egegik districts as well. “But then we saw a million fish or more on both July 3 and 4, and I guess they were ready for that volume by then, and I didn’t hear of many problems,” he said.

About 700 drift boats have been fishing out the remainder of the season in Naknek-Kvichak, compared to about 200 in each of the Egegik, Ugashik, and Nushagak districts.

It looked to Elison like many were hanging it up following Monday’s harvest.

“I imagine that the catches we had a few days ago probably gave people some more hope to stick around longer, but today fishermen were definitely starting to pull out. As it winds down, I think we’ll see more do so every day.”

Monday’s catch in Egegik was 120,000. In the Nushagak district, the catch Monday had dropped to just 52,000. Setnetters there had increased their percentage of the district catch in the past week, prompting Fish and Game to close the Wood River to setnetting and open it for the drift fleet Tuesday morning.

Togiak coming in late, and small

Togiak is the one district in Bristol Bay that is not meeting or beating expectations this year, and managers are now paring down the fishing effort to allow for the lagging escapement to hopefully catch up.

Fishing in Togiak opened on a weekly schedule June 1, but fishermen and Fish and Game don’t typically expect to see many fish until the third week of June, and especially the first week of July. But as of Tuesday, total escapement was just 23,000 sockeye, well behind the curve and well below the management goal of 120,000 to 270,000.

Area manager Matt Jones said the run is coming in small and late.

“The harvest during the third week of open fishing was the first indicator we had that this run was late. The numbers were still dismally low the week after that, which is not at all typical.”

On Monday, Fish and Game announced that fishing would be closed Tuesday, and reopened Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Department announced fishing would be closed Thursday and Friday as well. (Togiak operates on a weekly fishing schedule from 9:00 a.m. Monday to 9:00 a.m. Friday.)

Sadly, this week of July usually hosts the peak of the Togiak run, which fishermen may now be missing.

“If we don’t see escapement pick up some this week, next week’s fishing schedule is on the chopping block too, which is obviously not something we want to have to do,” said Jones. The department also put out a warning that illegal fishing in Togiak waters may be impacting the escapement.

Jones flew over the river Monday afternoon to see if perhaps there were more fish than expected heading towards the counting towers. There were not.

“The upper third to half of the river was virtually void of fish, which was definitely alarming. We’re used to seeing a lot more than that this time of the season.”

So far, fishermen have caught a total of just 165,000 sockeye and may not approach the preseason forecast of 540,000.

“We’re used to sometimes being behind and getting our escapement late in the game,” said Jones, “but what we’re seeing is very strange, we’re never this far behind. We never want to reduce fishing during the peak of the season for the folks in Togiak, but it’s a necessary measure for how extremely behind we are now.”

Pinks and silvers still to come

Sometime next week, Fish and Game will begin shifting the management focus to the pink and coho salmon runs coming on the tail end of the sockeye. "We’ll start looking at catches and see when we’re dropping off on the sockeye catch and picking up on the pink catch,” said Nushagak District Area Manager Tim Sands. Tentatively, he envisions 12 hours of open fishing time per day, but that will be dependent on the escapement numbers. But Sands is also not sure how much effort the district will get out of its fleet.

“There are markets in town for pinks and silvers,” he said, “ but I’m hearing of less and less interest from fishermen who are discouraged by an anticipated low price.”

Rumors around town are that pinks may fetch as low as $.20 cents per pound.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.