If the forecasts are close to accurate, this year’s Bristol Bay sockeye run won’t be a record for long.
Biology teams with University of Washington and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game both expect more than 70 million sockeye to return to Bristol Bay for the first time in recorded history.
Daniel Schindler, a biologist with UW’s Alaska Salmon Program, said multiple factors in the university’s record run forecast bolster its credibility. For one, all of the Bay’s nine large river systems are predicted to do very well, rather than just one or two forecasted to have outsized sockeye returns. The fact that the 2022 run will be on the heels of an inshore run of approximately 66.1 million sockeye — the all-time record — which provides researchers more to go on as well, according to Schindler.
Both the UW and Fish and Game forecasts are a weighted average of several models that use what are known as sibling relationships to formulate predictions, largely based on how many salmon of certain age classes returned in prior years.
The vast majority of Bristol Bay sockeye spend two or three years in the ocean following a year or two rearing in freshwater. That allows forecast authors to correlate their expectations for three-ocean sockeye returning the coming year to how many two-ocean sockeye returned the summer prior.
“The tendency has been for fish to spend three years in the ocean instead of two and that trend has increased over the last 60 years or so, except for the last 10 years,” Schindler said, adding that this year’s record run was more than half two-ocean sockeye. “If the forecast turns out, it will be the largest return of three-ocean fish in history.”
The UW forecast calls for 71.9 million sockeye, which would be 60% greater than the 20-year average return of 44.9 million fish. The state expects more than 75 million sockeye will flood Bristol Bay starting next June.
A run of more than 70 million sockeye would allow for an inshore harvest of 52 million to approximately 60 million, according to the forecasts. More than 40 million sockeye were harvested from the Bay last summer; the 2021 run of 66.1 million fish was also 32% above the state’s preseason forecast and the latest in a string of very strong sockeye returns Bristol Bay, which is the largest commercial sockeye fishery in the world.
State Fish and Game research biologist Greg Buck said the recent good runs also serve to give biologists confidence beyond just last year’s spectacular performance.
“We’ve had some really large returns so that we can say (2022) is believable,” Buck said.
The biologists both gave credence to what has been the prevailing theory about the generally increasing abundance of Bristol Bay sockeye — that a warming Bering Sea is becoming more productive — while salmon fisheries are largely suffering elsewhere in the state and beyond.
“It is clear that productivity is up but we’re going to get a couple low returns. Who knows when it will happen?” Schindler said.
He believes the large lakes that juvenile Bristol Bay sockeye rear in are becoming more productive as they warm with the climate as well.
“We’ve shown that juvenile salmon grow faster now than historically. That corresponds with this buildup in the number of fish that have returned to Bristol Bay in the last few decades,” Schindler said.
Buck said he attributes the positive trend in sockeye productivity more to what’s happening in the saltwater mostly because the trend is across nearly all the region’s rivers; the Kuskokwim River to the north has also seen improving sockeye returns, he noted.
Both biologists said the Bay’s sockeye run has to peak at some point, but they don’t think it’ll be anytime too soon.
“How high can it go? I don’t know, but I just released a forecast that was the largest forecast the department has ever put out. There were lots of discussions, but in the end I’m confident with the forecast we released. It’s entirely possible,” Buck said.
On the other end of the commercial fishing equation, representatives for the fishing fleet said there are a lot of variables that go into the highly competitive and often arcane fish processing industry and it’s not as simple as “ramping up” for a big run, so the capacity that is available every year isn’t likely to change much just because of record forecasts.
Jon Hickman, vice president for Peter Pan Seafood, said at least his processing company should have no problem managing another record Bristol Bay sockeye run.
“We could’ve had more fish and handled it just fine last year,” he said.
That’s because Peter Pan has plants in King Cove and Port Moller — areas where fishing peaks at different times than the Bay — so fish that can’t be cleaned on traditional Bristol Bay slime lines can be sent to those nearby facilities, according to Hickman.
He said preparedness and looking ahead to incorporate fishing openers, tides and other factors into a processing schedule are the keys to not getting overwhelmed when the fish are arriving fast.
“It’s making sure the person that’s moving those (fish) tenders and those pieces around is looking three days ahead,” Hickman said. “We feel good about next year.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: A previous headline on this article incorrectly stated that the current Bristol Bay sockeye record was set last year. The record was set this year.