Bristol Bay is approaching the record for sockeye salmon harvest once again.
As of July 21, fishermen in Bristol Bay’s five districts had harvested just more than 42 million salmon. More than 41.5 million of those were sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; that’s already more than the 41.3 million sockeye harvested in 2018, the second-largest harvest on record.
The largest harvest on record, which occurred in 1995, still stands at 44.2 million sockeye.
The total return so far is about 53.6 million sockeye, significantly fewer than the record-breaking run of 62.3 million fish last year but already beyond the upper end of the preseason forecast range of 27.9 million to 52.4 million.
Fishermen in the Nushagak district have been leading the area for total catch, but the Egegik isn’t far behind; both have topped 14 million sockeye. Bristol Bay west side area management biologist Tim Sands said he expects Egegik to catch the Nushagak area for total harvest soon.
Fishermen in the Nushagak district, at least, have become more efficient in selecting their gear in recent years, which may be helping to boost the catch, he said.
“The last two years we’ve had these really tremendous runs of two-ocean fish here in the Nushagak,” he said. “People probably saw fish going through their gear. I think there’s definitely been some learning going on.”
So far, the processors in the region have been able to handle the landings without too much difficulty, he said. Fish are coming in relatively steadily, and with a reported price so far of $1.34 per pound on average, fishermen are poised to do fairly well this season again in Bristol Bay.
However, there have also been some odd hallmarks to this season. June brought bright sunny days that led to skyrocketing water temperatures across Alaska, which can be bad news for salmon.
Dead salmon have been reported floating in rivers in Norton Sound and in the Kuskokwim River. In Bristol Bay, warm water seems to be preventing salmon from moving upstream in at least one system: the Igushik River, a broad river on the western side of the Nushagak District.
Sands said many systems across Alaska have seen salmon kills due to heat, including the Nushagak, but the Igushik in particular is having large numbers of them because warm water is blocking salmon from moving upstream.
“The Igushik River itself is kind of an interesting river,” he said. “It’s really slow, a lot of tide and not a lot of flow. It’s more like a really long pond. Because of that, it’s much more susceptible to heating up. The warmer the water is, the less oxygen can dissolve in it. There’s a bunch of fish in the river holding, there’s less oxygen available.”
Though other areas of Alaska aren’t quite having Bristol Bay’s luck for large sockeye returns, things aren’t going as poorly as last year. Prince William Sound fishermen have landed about 2.3 million sockeye as of July 21, with just shy of 1.2 million of those coming from the Copper River district.
That’s about 300,000 fish more than the preseason point forecast of 955,000 fish. Fishermen in Prince William Sound are now shifting attention to pink salmon, which are forecasted to arrive in numbers close to 23 million between hatchery and wild production.
Chignik has reported no landings so far this year, but that’s not because no fish are coming in; it’s because there aren’t enough processors in the area to require public disclosure of landing data. Dawn Wilburn, the area management biologist for salmon and herring in the Chignik Management Area, said the two processors taking fish in the Chignik area this year have not signed voluntary waivers for the disclosure of fish landing information, and by law, ADFG cannot disclose that data without them.
There hasn’t been a lot of harvest yet anyway, she said. But the sockeye run does at least look better than last year, which brought a disastrously low run to Chignik and prompted a request for disaster support in the area.
She said the Chignik River has not experienced the elevated temperatures other river systems in the state have, and there have been no fish die-offs reported there.
“It’s a lot better than last year,” she said. “Our early run was pretty weak, and our late run is looking OK.”
Things are still slow in Upper Cook Inlet, where fishermen are in the middle of their sockeye season. As of July 24, they’d harvested a total of 824,351 sockeye, about a quarter of the preseason forecast of 3 million sockeye.
Sonar counts on the Kenai River are tracking ahead of 2018 and 2017 so far, with 525,936 sockeye having passed the counter as of July 24. The Kasilof River is tracking ahead of 2018, 2017 and 2016, according to ADFG sonar counts, with 238,463 fish having passed the counter as of July 22.
Lower Cook Inlet should be ramping up soon, with pink salmon beginning to arrive in the various creeks and bays near Homer. Some of the creeks host sockeye and chum runs as well, with sockeye coming both from wild production and from the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s hatcheries.
As of July 22, fishermen had harvested 194,476 sockeye — with 120,823 of those coming from the predominantly hatchery-produced run in Resurrection Bay — and 128,026 pink salmon. The forecast predicts about 2.4 million pinks to be available for commercial harvest district-wide.
So far, ADFG hasn’t spotted any fish kills in aerial surveys of the Lower Cook Inlet streams, said Glenn Hollowell, the area management biologist for commercial salmon and herring fisheries in the area. Water temperatures may be a little cooler in the area due to cloud cover and smoke so far, he said.
“I am concerned about warm water when they do show up and start moving into the rivers in big numbers,” Hollowell said.
Resurrection Bay’s sockeye salmon run has actually significantly underperformed so far — though 120,823 sockeye have been harvested, that’s only about half what the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association projected it needed to harvest for cost recovery.
The hatchery organization is still harvesting some fish at its Bear Lake weir, but those fish are not the same quality as the fish harvested in marine water and may not be able to be sold to the processor, said Dean Day, the executive director of CIAA.
The organization tries to work around the recreational fishery in Resurrection Bay, which can hamper commercial fishermen as they try to harvest the sockeye for CIAA, Day said. ADFG raised the bag limit for sockeye in the Resurrection River this year from 6 to 12 per day because too many were making it upstream.
He said CIAA may consider doing a creel survey on recreational fishermen in Resurrection Bay in the future to quantify how many fish are being taken in the sportfishery there, as the only data available now is the voluntary reporting ADFG collects in the annual Sport Fish Harvest Survey.
“In the next couple of weeks I’ll be able to have a pretty good number on what we can estimate was our total return,” Day said. “But a huge unknown number is the fish harvested recreationally.”