Field & Stream has reported some sobering news about northwestern salmon runs this year: Yukon River chum salmon down 90 percent, a paucity of kings on the Kenai Peninsula, and endangered Chinook on the Columbia and in northern California. But in Bristol Bay, the sockeye, again this year, are running gangbusters.
At last count on Thursday, commercial fishing crews had caught 53.325 million sockeye in the southwest Alaska fishery since the opening of the season on June 1, bringing the state total to 74 million. With the season running into early August, officials anticipate another statewide record year. In Bristol Bay, they’ve already crushed the previous regional record catch of 44.3 million in 1995.
The total run for Bristol Bay so far this year, including fish netted by commercial fishing vessels and those counted by river towers as the fish head up tributaries to spawn, is at 69.7 million, topping last year’s record run by a whopping 2 million. On the Wood River alone, counters have recorded over 3 million fish.
Sherol Mershon, who owns a bed and breakfast and has fished sockeye commercially near the head of the Wood for 45 years told Alaska Public Media, “They just pour by. Sometimes there’s 500 in the air, breaking the water. When it’s dead calm you can see really well,” she said. “I lay in my bed at night with the window open and I can hear them jumping, and it’s just amazing. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Bristol Bay is the world’s largest source of wild sockeye salmon. Thousands of local fishermen ply the sustainably managed fishery, working on small boats. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, they caught nearly 2.4 million sockeye on Thursday alone. Processors have struggled, working 16-hour shifts, to keep pace.
But it’s not only commercial fishermen who benefit from such an abundance. “We’ve had a very large run of sockeyes, which is awesome,” says John Perry of Angler’s Alibi lodge, who guides recreational anglers on the Alagnak River. He’s quick to point out that although commercial nets are designed to catch sockeye only, they get other salmon species as bycatch, including kings and chum, which are not doing well. “You’ll hear that someone got a 70-pound king in a net; meanwhile we haven’t seen a 70-pounder in a long time. That’s the downside, but I support the commercial fishery. If they allowed all those sockeyes to move up, we don’t know how that would affect things.”
The upside is better recreational fishing, and more. “Such large sockeye runs provide the food and nutrients that support our rainbow trout, grayling, and char fisheries. In fact, all that biomass supports the entire ecosystem, not just the other fish species but the bears and even the moose that feed on riverside vegetation.” While sockeyes are not exactly a glamour species for fly anglers, his clients do get excited about catching sockeyes because they can keep fish to eat, knowing that it is a sustainable fishery.
Scientists expect that the current Bristol Bay sockeye runs may be the largest of the past several hundred years. But the news isn’t all glorious. Chinook, king, and chum numbers in the Bay are down. And sockeye runs along the Gulf of Alaska have been down for the past decade.
Dan Schindler, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences who has studied sockeye for years, explained to Alaska Public Media that scientists do not fully understand the reasons for these fluctuations. “In terms of what the mechanism is, it’s really hard to really pinpoint that,” he said. “What we have is correlations. And the correlations are that when we’ve had really warm—to hot, even—eastern Bering Sea sea surface temperatures, Bristol Bay sockeye have done really well. And other species in the region haven’t.”