A dreadful sockeye run in the Chignik salmon fishery, on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, is imperiling commercial and subsistence fishermen and distressing the community there.
In the Chignik salmon fishery, the sockeye escapement — or the number of fish allowed to escape past the fishermen to spawn — was about 190,000 fish as of Friday afternoon. That's less than half of what the average figure usually looks like by now.
Commercial sockeye fishing has been closed there all season, and subsistence fishing has been restricted. Tribal groups have requested a disaster declaration for the fishery from Gov. Bill Walker.
Sockeyes are hugely important to the Chignik area, where that salmon run is the "bread and butter" of the economy, said Dawn Wilburn, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The worst year for sockeye there before this season was in 1964, she said.
"Right now, it's pretty devastating for them not to be able to go out and go fishing at all," Wilburn said.
The commercial sockeye run is "basically everyone's main source of income" in the the area, said Chignik city clerk J.J. Orloff. Some who depend on that fishery are at a loss for what to do.
"Well, it's like … everybody's been put on some kind of depressants or something," said Axel Kopen, a fisherman in Chignik Bay. He said most people he knows can't recall a time when fishing was worse. "We're sitting on the beach with no fish and no hope. Pretty bleak."
As with other weak salmon runs in Alaska, it's hard to know the exact cause or causes. There is speculation, Wilburn said in an email, that the warm "blob" of water in the North Pacific Ocean a few years ago had an adverse effect on sockeye. Chignik also had a smolt monitoring project that indicated the fish migrating from the river to the ocean were less fit than usual.
"The reasons for this are also speculative, but it may mean that Chignik had a couple factors that negatively impacted the run," Wilburn said.
Jamie Ross, a fisherman who lives in Homer and who has fished in Chignik before, decided not even to try fishing there this season. He set out for Prince William Sound instead.
There's also frustration, Kopun and Ross said, that stems from larger fisheries nearby — Kodiak to the east and a swath called Area M to the west — catching Chignik-bound sockeye. Fisheries to the west have continued putting gear in the water for sockeye fishing even as Chignik has faced restrictions.
"The problem with Chignik is … we are the itty bitty little area stuck in between," Ross said. Nearby are "much larger fleets, much larger fisheries that our fish travel through in order to get to Chignik."
It's even tougher to grapple with a paltry number of fish when, just on the other side of the Alaska Peninsula, the Bristol Bay sockeye run is smashing records.
Most of the fishermen in Chignik are local or from elsewhere in Alaska. Of the 91 registered commercial salmon fishing permits for the fishery this year, 11 are from out-of-state, and 39 of are from Chignik communities, including Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake and Perryville, Wilburn said.
Concern about the poor sockeye run there isn't just about the subsistence harvest, or the livelihood of fishermen. The community "runs, basically, on the fish tax," said Orloff, the city clerk. The population in Chignik is around 80 people in the winter but typically swells to 300 or 400 in the summer, she estimated.
"We're worried about how it's going to affect the city running," she said. "Utilities depend on it, it pays for the city workers, it pays for the public works. We're worried about keeping the generators going, the lights on, our fuel consumption. It's going to be devastating."
Some people are leaving the area to pursue other jobs because they're worried they won't make it through the winter without that sockeye income from summer, Orloff said.
A coalition of tribal groups in the Chignik area last month sent a resolution to Walker asking him to declare an economic disaster for the fishery.
"The concern is with no fish showing up, people won't be able to collect fish for subsistence use," said Marit Carlson-Van Dort, president of Far West, Inc., the Alaska Native village corporation for Chignik Bay. "At the end of the day, this is not an issue in our minds of, 'my fish,your fish.' We are concerned about the long term sustainability of this run."
Fishermen know what it's like to have a bad season, and are accustomed to dealing with cycles of boom and bust, Kopun said. But this year is an outlier.
"You just go down and lay down in the afternoon because you don't know what else to do," he said.