Bristol Bay has a bumper crop of sockeye, but kings and chums aren’t filling rivers statewide

Bristol Bay sockeye salmon returned in record numbers this season, and while much of the focus is on the bumper year in the Bay, all is not rosy statewide.

The Nushagak River system on the Dillingham side of Bristol Bay fueled the record run — 12 million fish over the projected return. The Ugashik District was also slightly over forecast, and the Togiak, Naknek/Kvichak and Egegik districts all came in close to Alaska Department of Fish and Game projections.

The salmon escapements up the nine main river systems were all above minimums, so all is well — at least with sockeye.

Kings, which are only really counted in the Nushagak, were a little weak. As of now, it appears chinooks will squeak by the lower end of the escapement goal.

The king returns in the Naknek and the Alagnak rivers have been poor the past couple of seasons. The commercial fishery pays little heed to these two runs, but they are important to the sport-fish crowd.

And, as has been noted everywhere, the kings are getting smaller.

Chinook returns used to have a significant portion of 6- and 7-year-old fish returning. These were the big tackle busters. Today most of the fish are 4 years old, and a younger king is a much smaller king.

Also, for the second year in a row, the chum salmon return appears to be weak in the Alagnak River. They aren’t counted in that river system, but the commercial harvest was down significantly. The Nushagak, the only river in the Bay where chums are counted, is facing its second consecutive year below the escapement goal.

Why is all of this happening? That’s a question without an answer. There are only theories. The latest and greatest ones include climate change and competition from hatchery fish.

There isn’t much that can be done about warming oceans. Yes, we can cut carbon omissions over the course of years, but that will be too late for the king run.

We can do something about excessive numbers of hatchery pinks. Pinks are not an extremely valuable fish to the sportsman. Commercial fishermen like them because a huge number is available. The price is poor and the quality is suspect, but hey, a hundred million of the little buggers trump those issues.

There does not seem to be definitive science concerning competition between hatchery fish and wild stock. However, it is not an idea to disregard. Some Cook Inlet fishermen, both sport and commercial, are convinced competition for food is a major issue. That may be. But, the folks who could be really impacted by ocean competition are on the Yukon River.

The Yukon is facing the worst chum run in history. This season follows a poor chum return last year too.

While it is not unprecedented to have two bad returns in a row, it is concerning that the terrible 2021 season is coming off an excellent return in 2017. Sixty percent of fall chums on the Yukon are 4-year-old fish. That age group is a no-show this year.

When chums don’t return to the Yukon system, people don’t eat. If you live in Stevens Village, you don’t trot down to the local store and buy hamburger. Subsistence fish is a food staple, but more than that it is a life staple.

No fish means you can’t feed your sled dogs. Money spent for snowmobile gas is spent for groceries instead. There is no fish camp for the kids, who learn life skills there.

The Bristol Bay sockeye run has been huge this summer. But we can’t let this extreme bright spot blind us to the overall health of Alaska’s salmon fisheries. Bristol Bay sockeye are probably the best managed fishery in the world. Economically they may be the most important.

While we celebrate that, let us not forget about the folks on the Kuskokwim River who can’t fish because there are no chinook in their river. Kotzebue fishermen depend on chum salmon, and this season does not appear promising. The Yukon gets a double whammy, with no chums and no kings.

The record-breaking Bristol Bay return means very little to fishermen across Alaska whose freezers are empty.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist 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.