Bristol Bay red salmon run smashes records

Millions of fish and sinking boats: It was a record-breaking year for the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

The Western Alaska commercial fishery — which produces 40 percent of the world's harvest of sockeyes — had a stellar harvest, with record-breaking catches and a high price for fishermen at the docks.

A total run of almost 59 million fish had been counted in the region as of Thursday, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

That doesn't top the record total run of 62 million caught in 1980, but it's still among the top five since managers began keeping records in 1952, according to Fish and Game area management biologist Tim Sands.

But records were set in portions of Bristol Bay, particularly in the Nushagak district, one of the region's five management areas that encompasses the mouth of the Nushagak River and the bay the river drains into.

According to Fish and Game, the total run for the district will come in at just over 19 million fish, blowing past the previous record set in 2006, when 14.7 million fish were counted. The total harvest was way up too, at 11.5 million fish this year, well above the 10.8 million that fishermen hauled in 2006.

The Nushagak region has never before recorded a day when fishermen caught more than a million fish, but that happened twice this year — including a catch of 1.5 million on July 3. That same day, several boats sank or were grounded in the region after battling poor weather while heavily loaded with fish.


[At least 4 loaded Bristol Bay fishing boats swamped in bad weather]

The nearby Wood River saw its highest escapement ever, with 4.2 million fish heading up the river, 270,000 fish more than the previous record set in 2006.

The returns in nearly every one of the region's five districts came in above projections. The Nushagak surprised by more than doubling the 8.6 million fish expected to return this year.

Sands wasn't sure what prompted such a strong run. He said ocean conditions and mild winters in the region could have been a factor. Or it could be just a random variation in the fish run.

"I think clearly the whole management scheme of escapement-based management and pristine watersheds is a huge factor," Sands said. "But, yeah, we've just been fortunate."

Fishermen also got a financial boost, with processors offering a base price of $1 per pound of sockeye salmon and increases for chilling and bleeding the fish.

Fishermen won't know how much processors will pay until later in the season. David Harsila, president of the Bristol Bay Fishermen's Association, said this year's base price, up from 76 cents a pound in 2016, was a big improvement.

He said 76 cents a pound "isn't enough to make things work" for a fisherman. It can lead to a sense of uncertainty heading into the fishing seasons, he said.

"I think that everyone had the same feeling," Harsila said. "So it was a sense of relief."

Becky Martello, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said the huge run helped marketers boost the profile of the Bristol Bay fishery, along with the price.

"You just don't get healthy returns like this in a fishery that's managed poorly — I think this says a lot about the quality of management of the Bristol Bay fishery, and that's something that resonates with fishermen and consumers alike," she wrote in an email.

But there were still challenges as processors, dealing with the influx of fish, put limits on fishermen during the height of the season. Everett Thompson, a drift fisherman based in Naknek, said he lost out on catching between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of fish due to limits. He said he caught processor-imposed limits quickly, harvesting the 10,000 or 8,000 pounds of salmon in only a matter of hours. Then he had to wait and watch the fish slip by.

"I know that I lost out," he said.

But Harsila said the good run marks a milestone for the fishery.

"It also indicates for the future that markets for this fish have expanded and gotten significantly improved, which brightens the future," Harsila said. "Everything is about marketing, so this kind of like a big light at the end of a long tunnel." 

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.