Business/Economy

Deja vu in Bristol Bay? Big red salmon run resembles last year's

The much-anticipated 2016 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run is taking shape, and it's something like the movie "Groundhog Day," where history seems to repeat itself again and again.

Through Wednesday, some 32 million salmon had returned to the bay. About 23 million had been harvested, including 2 million fish that day alone.

That's remarkably similar to last year's run through July 13, 2015, when the fleet had harvested 22.8 million fish, including 1.8 million that day — putting the total run at 33.7 million.

Michael Link, a scientist with the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute, said the run is shaping up much like last year – when the run arrived late and ended up as the second largest since 1995.

"The … indices this year, as well as the catch and escapement, seem to be mimicking 2015 more than any year that we've seen in the past."

But there's one big difference this year: The fishery hit a major milestone July 6, when a fisherman somewhere in Bristol Bay caught what's believed to be the 2 billionth salmon in the fishery's history. Due to the volume of fish and how records are kept, it's unknown exactly who caught it or where, but a ceremonial 2 billionth fish was landed near Ugashik and delivered to Gov. Bill Walker.

That ceremonial catch was delivered by Howard Knutsen, who was born in the 1930s and is said to be the oldest fisherman in Bristol Bay. A coalition opposed to the proposed Pebble mine orchestrated the delivery to the governor this week.

According to fisheries historian Bob King, Knutsen was alive for about 1.5 billion of the 2 billion salmon caught so far in Bristol Bay. It's believed the 1 billionth fish was caught in 1978.

Fishermen paused briefly on July 6 to consider whether they had caught No. 2 billion — about half a dozen called KDLG radio to take credit for the historic sockeye — and then fishing resumed, pressing on toward 3 billion.

A more pressing concern to many in the fleet was how many more fish would show up this summer and what price they would fetch. Despite an early price posted in May at Copper River, no other processors have followed suit, and as of mid-July, the price remains an unknown. Small inventory starting the season, and fewer fish expected out of other fisheries, was expected to increase the price at least slightly compared to 2015's low base price of 50 cents per pound.

So far, it's hard to say just how big the total run is going to be. Link said on Sunday that's because no one could say for sure what this week will deliver. A strong week could push the return up to 40 million, or even 50 million or more – depending on how fast it drops off.

Link said state fishery managers will focus on fishing the rest of the run as safely and effectively as possible.

"They could not have predicted the lateness of this run," he said.

Curry Cunningham, with the University of Washington's Fisheries Research Institute, said Thursday he expected a total run of around 46 million.

Link said having two consecutive late runs is odd. Typically, back-to-back years differ. Consequently, he wonders if change is afoot, and whether historical run timing is the most reliable way of looking at the run.

"We ought to be careful about what we call normal and what we call late," Link said. "We should be careful about trying to use the historical data set to predict what might happen. These are two very anomalous years."

Timing isn't the only thing different this year.

Link said that analysis from Fish and Game's gene lab suggests that the fish have lingered farther offshore than usual too.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman. She can be reached at mdischner@reportalaska.com.

Sponsored