DILLINGHAM -- Alaska's largest sockeye salmon fishery was predicted to have a near-record return this summer, but so far the reds have only trickled into Bristol Bay's rivers.
Through Tuesday, 3.4 million sockeye had been harvested, and the total run including escapement was 5.3 million fish. Given that Fish and Game's preseason estimates suggested 54 million sockeye would return, with 38 million available for harvest, there was more head scratching than fish picking happening as June turned into July.
There are three questions on the minds of many fishermen: Are all those fish going to show up? If so, when, and are they all going to show up at once?
The closest this fishery has to a crystal ball is the Port Moller test fishery, which catches sockeye at a series of stations spread offshore from Port Moller. Most of the sockeye caught there are bound for Bristol Bay's districts, and those that aren't caught will arrive in two to 11 days. With genetic sampling of the catch and some study of past data, the timing and size of the run come into view.
Provided, that is, some sockeye start to show up inshore, either harvested in gillnets or counted as escapement up the rivers. The research team needs the "catch and escapement" data to reference back to their test fishery catches. Port Moller's catches picked up by June 17, but a week passed and few sockeye arrived inshore.
"Fish being late is the first part of them not showing up," said Buck Gibbons, skipper of the F/V Stevie K, fishing last week in the Naknek-Kvichak district. Gibbons repeated that comment Wednesday night after a slow harvest and another day of down time.
By Wednesday evening, Port Moller and Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials were hinting at trouble.
"The run seems to be late if it is to break 30 million, and several days late for it to come in at the preseason forecast," wrote Port Moller's data analyst Scott Raborn.
"It certainly has the feeling of being potentially slightly smaller than forecast," said Fish and Game commercial fisheries director Jeff Regnart, who was in Dillingham on Wednesday. He added that the sockeye are smaller than expected and the run seems late, too.
Naknek-Kvichak was lagging the furthest behind. After a long wait for fishermen, the first open periods offered little harvest.
"So far I haven't seen a fish in my net," Pederson Point setnetter Sylvia Elford told KDLG about an hour into Monday's opener. The day before, her site had delivered only 140 pounds.
"Out of the 20 days we've been here, we've bought fish twice," said Rob Trumble, skipper of the fishing tender Denali. "We have 11,000 pounds packed. It's been the most different year ever."
Fish and Game's preseason forecast predicted 28.8 million sockeye returning to Naknek-Kvichak, with 18 million available for harvest. Through Tuesday, only 834,000 sockeye had been accounted for.
"It's been really frustrating," said Gabe Dunham aboard the F/V Oracle in Naknek late Wednesday. His boat has been in the water since June 18. "This down time, best I can say for it, is that it's been good for shoreside businesses."
Fishermen are not leaving the district, despite the wait. More boats and permits are registered to fish Naknek-Kvichak than in any other district, and more are added every day. As of Tuesday there were 629 permits and 532 vessels registered in the district.
Fishermen say that's because they know Bristol Bay's run size and timing change every year.
"The last couple of years have been one way, and this year has definitely shaped up to be a different way," Lange Solberg on the F/V Opie II said Wednesday.
"Hopefully by July 4 we'll be up to our eyeballs in fish," he said.
Dave Bendinger is the news director at KDLG in Dillingham. KDLG's Hannah Colton and Molly Dischner contributed to this story, which is republished here with permission.