"Lots of cotton, lots of fish!" That's the old Bristol Bay, residents say. We could scoff at these old sayings, thinking "What in the world is the relationship of Alaska wild cotton to the sockeye run?" There should be no kinship between these two, but I still felt a little unease upon departing the jet in King Salmon and seeing almost no cotton on the drive to Naknek.
The wild cotton never materialized this season. The red salmon did, though they were late enough to make even the most seasoned fishermen a little nervous. The reds, which normally hit Egegik and the Nushagak first, straggled in. It looked as if the run was building, but there was no strong push to give fishermen hope. Robert Samuelson, a longtime Bay resident, stated; "I'll believe there are lots of fish when the cow jumps over the moon!"
Bristol Bay fishermen are not used to a few hundred thousand sockeye caught per day. They need to have millions of fish show to be comfortable. Wherever fishermen gathered, there was nervous talk about the run; were they coming? A common thread was that Bristol Bay fish are always on time. If the run is late, it seldom materializes. Many fishermen had spent big bucks preparing for a bumper crop of reds.
Fishermen weren't the only ones nervous. Processors had hired extra workers and had made shipping arrangements for sending extra fish out from the Bay. A lot of extra money had been spent in anticipation of a huge run of sockeye. The historic peak on the Fourth of July came without much of the usual fireworks and fanfare. The weather had been scorching. Unaccustomed tundra fires were burning and fireworks were prohibited in most of Southwest Alaska. The water in area rivers felt like bath water. One of the main spawning tributaries of the Kvichak, Talarik Creek, was 60 degrees.
Where were the fish? The Fisheries Research Institute personnel, who operate the test fishery in Port Moller in an attempt to determine run size and inshore timing, issued this statement, "The sockeye run is either experiencing a longer than normal inshore travel time, or milling. We must also face the possibility of a run that may be much smaller than the pre-season forecast." That about covers it!
The following day, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game downgraded its estimate of the Kvichak River run from 20 million to 4.7 million. There was barely time for the Bay fishermen to mope. A couple of days later Egegik fishers pulled in a season-high catch. A southwest breeze swept across the Bay, kicking fish inshore.
By the July 7, the Bay was hauling in over 1 million fish per day. It mattered little where one fished. Sockeye were everywhere. There were smiles at the tenders. Tired crews dozed on the boats while they waited in line to deliver their catch.
The catch went over 10 million, then 15 million. When the catch broke 20 million, little flickers of nervousness began to appear in the eyes of fishermen. Could the market stand another large pack of red salmon? What if the Fraser River in Canada also had good production? Storage facilities were already full of frozen filets and unsold cans from last season.
By the time the catch passed 30 million fish, there were fishermen leaving Bristol Bay on their way home. Price rumors abounded. "Forty cents, 50 cents, $500 'going home' money; talk to us in a couple of weeks." In spite of this, fishermen and canneries stayed later than the normal. There were still good fish to be caught on July 22.
Buyers for sockeye were getting scarce, however. On July 25, Copper River Seafoods and Ocean Beauty were the only shows in town. On July 27, Naknek was taking on its fall look. There were only a few boats left fishing. The chum run was beginning and any remaining market was going to have to deal with those lesser quality fish. Processing costs and shipping costs remain the same, no matter the name of the fish.
Bristol Bay fishermen returned home this season after the most up-down season in Bay history. No fish, lots of fish. From expectations of $1 dollar per pound, to apprehension of 50 cents. There were plenty of fish to be caught, but in a fishery that costs $30,000 or $40,000 to break even, it might have been better if there had been not quite so many. The sockeye finally came, but the cotton never did.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.