The biggest run of Bristol Bay salmon in 20 years is projected to slam nets and reach spawning grounds in 2015, presenting a bounty for commercial fishermen and a challenge for processors.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game last week forecast a Bristol Bay run of 54 million sockeye. That's up by more than 50 percent over the long-term average of 32 million, biologists said.

"Bring them on!" one man posted on a Bristol Bay commercial fishing Facebook page.

A group that represents the Bristol Bay driftnet fleet, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, linked to the forecast on its website.

"Spoiler alert: It's big," the association said.

If the forecast is borne out, next year's return of one of Alaska's most lucrative fisheries will be the biggest since 1995. Bristol Bay's red salmon runs are the biggest in the world. Protecting them has been a central theme in the fight against the Pebble prospect, the massive gold and copper mine proposed for the region.

The exciting prospect of a huge fishing season is tempered by the reality that it hasn't happened yet.

"They are paper fish until they show up," said Robert Heyano of Dillingham, who has fished Bristol Bay since he was a boy at Ekuk Beach, helping work his family's anchored-down setnets along shore. Since 1972, he's fished with driftnets from his boat and now is president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents more than 1,800 fishermen who driftnet in Bristol Bay. About half live in Alaska.

The forecast includes a projection of 2 million reds that originated in Bristol Bay spawning grounds and that state managers expect will be caught south of the Alaska Peninsula before reaching the bay. Some 52 million are expected to make it to the bay, and almost 39 million are expected to be caught there, under the forecast. The number reaching spawning grounds -- what biologists refer to as escapement -- should top 13 million.

"I'm looking forward to it," Heyano said. "I'm pretty confident the number will represent the accurate figure, give or take a few million on either side."

The University of Washington's Alaska salmon program released its Bristol Bay prediction for 2015 last Friday, a day after the state's announcement. It is forecasting a return of almost 50 million Bristol Bay salmon, about 4 million below the state's forecast. All nine river systems that feed into Bristol Bay are expected to see healthy returns next year, the university concluded.

The state forecasts particular high returns to the Kvichak, Naknek and Egegik river systems. But forecasts for individual rivers tend not to be as accurate as for the whole bay, biologists said.

Sibling strength

The predicted surge is rooted in a twist from this year's Bristol Bay run. A large number of the reds were small jacks that only spent a year in the ocean rather than the more typical two or three, said Chuck Brazil, Bristol Bay area research biologist.

Those little reds, however, have siblings still swimming in the Pacific Ocean, and research biologists believe many will head back next summer.

"Our forecasts are based on sibling relationships," Brazil said Tuesday. "In 2014 the return of sockeye to Bristol Bay had a strong jack component."

Few jacks are caught by the hundreds of boats in the Bristol Bay commercial fleet, he said. The mesh openings on those nets are too big.

"They'll swim right through it," Brazil said. Instead, Fish and Game crews caught large numbers of jacks in fine, cotton mesh nets they put out on beaches upriver near spawning grounds. Salmon caught in beach seines help Fish and Game evaluate the run, including the age of the returning salmon, he said.

The projected harvest of almost 39 million reds is above what fishermen have been allowed over the last 10 years. The catch has ranged from 15 million to 31 million and has averaged 26.5 million sockeye salmon, according to Fish and Game.

"As a fisherman, you see a forecast like this and your heart starts pounding," said Sue Aspelund, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, whose daughter still fishes the family setnet site in Bristol Bay. The biggest plus, she said, is that spawning goals should be met.

Overloading processors?

Bristol Bay forecasts tend to be accurate and if anything underestimate what's coming, the new Fish and Game forecast says. Since 2001, forecasts have averaged 8 percent lower than the number of salmon that returned. But this year biologists were way off, with a forecast 36 percent below the run.

If the surge comes, fishermen will be ready with spare nets and maybe extra crew members, Heyano said.

The challenge will be for processors to handle so many fish within just a few weeks, say state managers and commercial fishermen.

"The biggest limiting factor is the processing capacity," said Travis Elison, the Fish and Game management biologist for part of the Bristol Bay watershed. "It really depends on how the run comes in."

If the salmon make their push into Bristol Bay steadily over a 20-day period, the processors should be able to keep up, he said. But a big spike over a day or two or three may produce "more fish than industry can harvest in that short amount of time."

With huge runs, processors may end up canning more fish and freezing less, meaning less selection for buyers, Aspelund said.

Fishermen pulling so many salmon from the mesh of nets also can find it difficult to ensure the best quality, something her organization has been helping fishermen work on, she said.

"You look at a run this size and we really start worrying about being able to maintain that," she said. "You are picking harder and picking faster and you just can't handle them quite as carefully."

Bristol Bay, the most productive sockeye fishery in the world, has experienced cycles of low years, followed by big years, a chain that then repeats, Brazil said. Since 1989, for instance, the Bristol Bay run has exceeded 40 million sockeye 16 times and three times has topped 50 million, he said.

The years from 1989 to 1995 were remarkable, with Bristol Bay runs averaging 51 million sockeye. But that flipped for the next eight years, when runs averaged 27 million, only to see a period of big returns start anew in 2004.

The last low cycle was from 2011 through 2013, Brazil said.

A number of fish expected to return next year were spawned in 2011, biologists said. But others had their beginnings in the gravel of streams before that.

The forecast, Brazil said, shows that the Bristol Bay salmon run "is healthy and sustainable."