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Bristol Bay salmon runs fare better than elsewhere in Alaska

The last of the pink salmon are wending their way to spawning grounds and used gear is stripped and stored for next year.

Fishermen are moving vessels to dry storage and cleaning cabins of their summer supplies.

For better or worse, the 2012 Bristol Bay salmon season has run its course, with some areas of the bay showing surprising highs and others unexpected lows compared to forecast.

With a bay-wide harvest of 22 million sockeye, it was just over last year's harvest and not a bad season when compared to historical averages -- though the success of individual fishermen certainly varied between the districts.

"The sockeye salmon run for the Nushagak District was the biggest disappointment," said Tim Sands, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist for the Nushagak. "(It was) right around 4 million total run with a harvest of 2.7 million. That is half of forecast and similar to 2002 when the harvest was 2.8 million."

But there are two big differences between this year and a decade ago.

In 2002 the overall harvest was at 10.6 -- less than half of this year's bay harvest -- and red prices hovered at 50 cents -- half of this year's tentative dollar per pound.

That price has been holding steady for three seasons now, through 2011's 21-million sockeye harvest and the 29 million of 2010.

While the Nushagak rolled in underwhelming numbers this year, the Naknek-Kvichak by far carried the bay's harvest with its more than 10 million sockeye.

"Half the (bay's) catch came out of this district," said Slim Morstad, Fish and Game biologist for the Naknek District.

Though Naknek River fish came back under forecast, the Kvichak River doubled forecasted numbers.

"It kept the whole bay OK," Morstad said.

That 10 million fish harvest accounts for the more than 800 drift boats that chose to fish the Naknek-Kvichak this year, a higher than average count for that district.

Egegik, traditionally a popular district for the more competitive boats, had less than their usual drifters, with between 250 and 300 boats fishing this season. Ugashik drifters numbered slightly more than typical, between 150 and 200.

Harvests were 2.4 million in Ugashik and just under 5 million in Egegik.

The Nushagak is the only district that keeps regular record of the other salmon species, and all of them made escapement goals -- including the infamous Chinook.

The entire bay escaped the stress that drastically low king salmon numbers have put on fisheries around the state.

Sands said he was surprised when the effort for pink salmon trickled off around 850,000. With fish still pouring into the river, the fishermen seemed to lose interest before the flow stopped.

Pinks don't carry near the market value of reds, which is why many fishermen hang up the corks at the end of the red run. With a lot of light nets in the Nushagak this summer, it was an earlier call than usual for many.

Success in the bay this season depended on the age-old wisdom -- location, location, location. A varied performance across the board left Alaska's salmon hot spot with an overall season that was neither disaster nor extraordinary.

"The good thing is we made all our escapement goal minimums,” Sands said. "Including king salmon."

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Contact Hannah Heimbuch at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.