Nothing but 'ghosts' at the tail end of Bristol Bay sockeye season

John Schandelmeier
OPINION: Commercial fishing for salmon at the tail end of a run in Bristol Bay means watching out for 'ghosts', and when they outnumber live fish, it's time to head home. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

NAKNEK -- The short Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery has passed its peak and is winding down. Drift fisherman and setnetters, for better or worse, have made their season and are beginning to fish the tail end of the run. "Scratch fishing," is the term coined by fishers to describe the hit-and-miss tides during the next several weeks. "Scratching" is characterized by cut fish, pockets of sockeye, and floaters.

Cut fish are end-of the-run salmon. These fish are sockeye that have escaped seal and Beluga or may have fallen from nets. They are injured to some degree and most will likely not make the spawning ground. Some fall victim to bears, eagles and gulls, but most are destined to become Floaters.

Floaters, zombies, ghosts. Whatever one wishes to call them, they are the same fish -- or rather, a non-fish! Sockeye that have succumbed to the perils of inshore travel become the dreaded "floater."

Salmon are a dense fish. When they die, they immediately sink to the bottom and begin to waft back and forth along the shallow mud floor of Bristol Bay. Sockeye will spend about a week in this environment. In other salmon fisheries throughout the state, a fish that falls from the nets and dies, sinks to the bottom. They immediately become food for sand fleas and various other bottom-dwelling scavengers. Not so in Bristol Bay.

Twenty-foot tides keep resident scavengers to a minimum. The dead salmon remain relatively intact, not far from the location of their original demise. Soon they will rise, surfacing in an accompanying pool of fermenting scent. Now lighter than their watery surroundings, they again traverse the waters of Bristol Bay with a mission of tormenting the unwary commercial fisherman.

Eight-mile-per-hour currents characterize the bay. Drift fishermen’s nets travel with this current at about the same speeds. The ghosts bide their time, and as the net lead lines scrape along the bottom, they catch up and quickly become entangled. The fishing nets are pulled in with hydraulic reels at the end of each set and the floaters must then be picked out by hand. Most are intact to some degree. Some can be shaken loose without touching, some are crushed when coming over the roller and fall to the back deck in a spray of putrefying flesh. Call it the revenge of the sockeye.

During night openings, fishermen can't see the zombies, but there is no mistaking the smell. Over the back rail they come, to the dismay of the unwary deckhand. Setnet fishermen have it worse, much worse.

Setnets are stationary, floaters are not. They ram the net with a vengeance, sometimes running in schools of several non-fish. The first week of July, they are relatively intact, gradually disintegrating as the month progresses.

Mid-July is characterized by nets with rafts of floaters, sometimes numbering dozens, caught in setnets, and held there by the rush of tide. Some can be rolled from the net, most must be removed by hand. I have known hardened fishermen, driven from the bay by floaters. Indeed, the standard in the setnet fishery is that when ghosts outnumber good fish, it’s time to go home.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.