Bristol Bay buyers say they can handle full sockeye run

Salmon season may be a few months away, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been prepping for the coming season, and processors have said they're ready to handle the full run that's expected.

The department published its annual salmon outlook for the bay in early April, shortly after the late-March release of its processor survey.

According to the processor survey, the industry expects to be able to handle more sockeye than are forecast to be caught this summer, but that's no guarantee that fishermen won't be placed on limits.

Each winter, Fish and Game surveys the main Bristol Bay processors to get a sense of how many fish they can handle. This year, the 12 major processors, which operate 16 facilities, said they can process 35.5 million fish. That's more than the 29.5 million forecast to be harvest, out of the total expected run of 46.6 million sockeye.

The outlook includes the regulation changes this season, and the baywide change is that all drift permit holders must register to fish in any district as of June 1, which means there's no more so-called "free week" to test different areas. That change was made by the state Board of Fisheries this winter.

Alaska Wildlife Troopers also offered a preview of the season, and said they'll monitor, and aggressively pursue, complaints of assaults and vessel ramming.

Fish and Game Regional Management Coordinator Bert Lewis said the results of this year's processor survey was pretty similar to what processors said last year -- and what they wound up doing.


"Last year the forecast was larger and the processors ended up taking almost exactly what they had said they were going to in the preseason capacity survey," Lewis said. "And that was despite the late and compressed run timing. So even though the run didn't really kick off until July 8, which is when it's usually winding down, they were still able to process the 35 million pounds that they said they were going to."

Lewis said the slight increase in capacity this summer comes from small changes at various plants, like improvements to processing lines, freezer capacity and even changed shipping plans.

Processors reported an expected daily capacity of 2.6 million fish this summer, which they say could be sustained for 17 days. But the survey also noted that it's just a spring look at what the summer could bring, and nothing's set in stone just yet.

Although the bay's buyers think they can handle more than the summer's expected catch, it doesn't mean they'll be able to process as many fish as are caught each day. Lewis said a compressed run, or even just a large one, complicates things.

"And as soon as you start doing 2 million fish a day, they can't keep up. At 1.5 million fish a day, it starts stretching them and it's hard to maintain that for any period of time with cycling tenders out to the fishing ground, holding capacity of chilled fish before they enter the plant are all factors that end up getting bottlenecked that lead to going on limits."

Last summer, the run had another tricky element for processors -- the size of fish.

"Last year we saw the smallest sockeye salmon weight on record for Bristol Bay, and this complicates the processing and slows down the process because to get the same amount of pounds you have to handle more individual fish," Lewis said. "Also the machinery is set up for larger fish. This also affects the markets too, because the market is better for larger fish. That's another complicating factor when we are looking at daily bottlenecks and the smaller size of the fish."

The survey started a couple of decades ago as a way to see whether or not there was a need to allow foreign processors back into the bay.

"We do the survey, they look at it, and if there was a significant shortfall, that could be justification for bringing in a foreign processor," he said. "The current survey, we have processing capacity for 6 million fish more than the current forecast harvest. And that demonstrates that if the run comes in on forecast, the industry should be able to process it with the available capacity."

According to a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Walker, no formal requests have been made to allow foreign processors in the bay this summer.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.