Outdoors/Adventure

The Bristol Bay sockeye run was record-setting, but there are plenty of factors that go into a successful fishing season

The Bristol Bay fishing season is wrapping up. The bay had a record sockeye salmon return this season. The salmon run, upwards of 70 million, was far and away the largest in recorded history. The catch was also at record levels. However, the roses were not necessarily for everyone.

When we speak of Bristol Bay, one is not talking about a single entity. The bay is composed of five individual fishing districts. Each district is a headed by separate river systems. The rivers have their own salmon runs, marginally connected with each other.

For instance, the Nushagak district on the west side, headed by the Nushagak, Wood and Igushik rivers, returned its second-largest sockeye run ever. On the east side, the Naknek/Kvichak area, had a good run, but nowhere near a record.

Two other districts, Egigik and Ugashik, had excellent sockeye runs, certainly in their top five, but again, not all-time highs. The last district, tiny Togiak, is separated from the rest of the bay by Cape Constantine and restrictive regulations. Togiak is having an average run of sockeye.

Fishing vessels in Bristol Bay can fish in whatever area they choose. However, to change the district in which they are fishing, a 48-hour waiting period is required. Fishermen and their vessels cannot have a net in the water during that time. Togiak is an exception. Bay fishermen cannot transfer into that district until after July 27 — this to protect the small local fishery from the large, expensive vessels, which make up much of the Bristol Bay fleet.

Fishermen, with a couple of sets less productive than their hope, might be enticed to transfer districts. The grass is always greener, but this is a crapshoot. The chosen new district must produce enough catch to not only improve the catch, but also make up for the two days of fishing missed.

A fisherman who transfers more than once loses four days fishing. That can be disastrous in the brief Bristol Bay season. Four missed days can easily mean between 80,000 and 100,000 pounds of fish during the peak of fishing. The 2022 season, with excellent runs in all districts, mitigated the transfer risk somewhat.

One will hear stories of huge bay catches by individual vessels. We all are familiar with fish stories. Some are true, most are not. With 50-plus years of commercial fishing, I have heard it all and take most stories with a full box of salt.

You hear quite a lot of stories of spectacular catches. And, for the most part fishermen did very well in Bristol Bay this season. The base price of $1.15 was less than than last season, but that price should bump up as processor sales begin to ramp up. Most folks will tell you they had a great season. It may not have been their very best fishing year, but was close.

Amid the success stories and happy fishermen, there are more than a handful whose season was not so wonderful.

Mechanical issues are the most common complaint. There is always a shortage of welders, mechanics and refrigeration techs in Bristol Bay.

The Bristol Bay fleet of more than 1,500 vessels can create a backlog of work orders. Some fishermen get known mechanical problems fixed at the end of the season. Others wait. The scramble begins in the spring.

Some bay boats go to a home port where they continue fishing other species. Most vessels stay in Bristol Bay boatyards. Fishing vessels do not do well sitting in a salt air environment for 11 months. Corrosion takes a toll. The lack of qualified mechanical experts can lead to fishermen, with limited time, settling for less expertise.

The result is midseason breakdowns. A trip through Bristol Bay boatyards will discover boats that only made a half-dozen tender deliveries all season. Several vessels sank with too many sockeye on the back deck.

The end-of-the-season storm that sent a North Pacific tender aground also took out a couple dozen setnet skiffs.

Storms, transfers, overloads and mechanics affected a significant portion of the Bristol Bay fleet. The consistency of the Bristol Bay run in 2022 helped salvage the season for more than one boat in the bay that had potential for a disastrous season.

In spite of an unproductive fishing season, very few fishermen will call it quits. You can already hear “wait for next year!”

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.

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