Next year's Bristol Bay sockeye return could number 46.5 million.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that between 36 and 56 million sockeye will return to Bristol Bay next summer, another big year even if the total comes in at the low end. That's a little less than the 2015 return, said Area Management Biologist Tim Sands after the forecast was released Oct. 29.
"It's lower than last year, than the 2015 season, but it's higher than the 10-year average," he said.
That run would still allow for a harvest of nearly 30 million, which would be the third above-average bay harvest in a row.
On the heels of two strong seasons, another large run could be hard to sell, said drift fisherman Abe Williams, who is the president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
"I think it means more challenges, how we get rid of the current inventory that we have and prepare for the abundance of salmon that's coming in 2016," he said. "It'll certainly make for some challenges."
But the forecast is just that: a potential return. This summer, the run was about 17 percent larger than the forecast. In 2014, it was about 53 percent above forecast.
The total forecast breaks down to an estimate for each fishing district. For the Naknek-Kvichak District, the forecast calls for a return of about 23 million fish. For the Egegik District, it forecasts about 7.4 million fish. For the Ugashik district, 4.95 million reds, 10.3 million sockeye are expected in the Nushagak district and about 660,000 fish in Togiak.
Fish and Game's Bristol Bay Area Research Biologist Chuck Brazil said the total forecast uses the estimates for each district, as well as other information.
"We put all the information together for our age compositions from our escapements and the harvests and combine those for each of the individual systems, and that's how we compile the brood tables," Brazil said.
Brazil said data collected last summer was used in next summer's projections, including age, sex and length data from both commercial harvests and escapement projects.
By collecting age data on the fish that return one summer, Brazil said Fish and Game can use sibling relationships to help predict how many fish from that same generation will return the next year.
This could be another summer of smaller sockeye. Brazil said the run is expected to contain a large portion of two-ocean fish. That's based on how many 1-year-old fish returned last summer.
"Two ocean fish are fish that mature after two years of being at sea, and those fish are typically smaller than your three ocean fish when they return," he said.
Sands said the Wood River also saw a strong return of one-ocean fish this year, which could mean a large number of two-ocean fish next year.
About 7.5 million sockeye are forecast for the Wood River next summer, which makes up the majority of the 10.3 million fish expected to return to the Nushagak District. Sands said that dynamic can be tricky.
"It's very difficult to catch all the Wood River fish we need to control the Wood River escapement, without catching too many Nushagak River fish. That forces us into the Wood River special harvest area. So it's something we're really going to have to watch and balance."
One regulation change up for discussion at the state Board of Fisheries meeting this winter would get rid of that special harvest area, and Sands said he'll wait to dive into next summer's management until after the board meets and makes its decisions on proposed changes.
"Each manager for their individual districts will come up with a plan, based on whatever regs have changed, as to how we want to approach the season," Sands said.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.