Sockeye salmon came flooding into Alaska’s fabled Russian River in such unprecedented numbers this week that only a day after the fishing season opened the minimum spawning goal had been met and limits for anglers doubled.
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Ten months ago, the New York Times was offering up an overblown, apocalyptic vision of “an era of climate change and pollution (where) Alaskans have seen startling disruptions in the fisheries that sustain them.”
“This summer,” the Times reported, “has turned into one of the worst for red-salmon fishing that anyone here can remember.”
Red (or sockeye) salmon runs were indeed weak in the rivers nearest the state’s urban core, although statewide returns overall rose to the mediocre level.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials at the time put out a press release telling fishermen not to panic.
“During years like 2018 it is important to maintain perspective on historical salmon harvests,” it read. “The three largest Alaska commercial salmon harvests on record occurred between 2013 and 2017; looking back to the mid-1970s, harvests between 100 and 150 million fish, like 2018, are far more common (18 seasons since 1975) than harvests exceeding 200 million fish (seven seasons since 1975).”
The forecast for this year is for 213 million salmon. The number is inflated by the expected return of 138 million pinks, a species that comes back in significantly greater numbers in odd years than in even years.
The smallest of the Pacific salmon, pinks power the state’s industrial fisheries but are of little interest to most Alaskans who prefer the bigger, tastier sockeye with their ruby-red flesh, or big, hard-fighting coho and Chinook salmon.
Chinook and coho continue to struggle coastwide. There is some speculation they might be having trouble competing for food with the huge and voracious population of pinks now inhabiting the North Pacific.
But sockeye runs in the big rivers – the Kenai and the Copper – near the state’s urban core look to be returning to something near normal this year.
Night and day
Off the mouth of the Copper River east of Anchorage, where commercial fishing was closed unexpectedly for the year in May 2018 with a catch of but 26,000 sockeye, the 2019 catch stood at 717,000 as of Tuesday; commercial fishing was continuing with regular openings; and the fish escaping the driftnets to make it into the river were tracking way above goals.
A salmon-counting sonar in-river at Miles Lake upriver from the fishing community of Cordova had counted more than 474,000 sockeye, or red salmon as Alaska often call them, as of the end of Thursday. That was more than 160,000 fish above the desired 314,000 by June 13.
“Oh, boy; oh, boy,” said Stormy Haught, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial research biologist in Cordova. “It’s a different year for sure.”
Haught suffered through a tough 2018 trying to explain the inexplicable when a forecast harvest of just under 1 million sockeye failed to materialize, and the river looked to be in danger of falling short of its in-river goal of 650,000 to 1 million sockeye for the first time in decades.
The latter fear was resolved by an unusual wave of August sockeye, and Haught was eventually able to explain that the reduced size of the run was due to a badly depleted class of 5-year-old fish, although no one knows why.
Five-year-olds typically comprise 70 to 85 percent of the Copper return. The 2018 run was weighted toward 4-year-old sockeye, which did give state fisheries biologists optimism in forecasting a 2019 return of more than 1.5 million sockeye with a projected commercial harvest of more than 750,000.
The forecast harvest might already have been reached. Cordova gillnetters were fishing Thursday, and they have caught more than 100,000 sockeye on each of the last three openings.
Seventy miles upstream from the commercial fishery near the tiny town of Chitina, winter population 125, dipnetters were swarming in from Anchorage and Fairbanks, the state’s two largest cities, to greet the arrival of these fish.
A fishing technique that dates back to the Ahtna, Kenaitze and other Indians of the north Gulf Coast, dipnetting involves sweeping a hoop net through murky glacial waters to capture fish unable to see the danger coming.
The early Athabascans wove their nets of spruce root, sinew or willow and hung them from a hoop and handle made of spruce. Nylon nets along with aluminum poles and hoops long ago replaced the old materials, and the fisheries today are as multi-ethnic as anything you will see in America, but the enthusiasm of Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, mongrel Caucasians, and Alaskan Natives fishing below the McCarthy Road bridge just outside of Chitina on Tuesday was surely no different than that of the Ahtna thankful to have the fish back 1,000 years ago.
Sticking to the formula
“It is in keeping with the forecast,” said Juneau-based biologist Rich Brenner, the man who now oversees salmon. predictions for the state. Most of those are based on simple, sibling models that project future year runs on the basis of early returning salmon in previous years.
The faltering run last year did raise some concerns about the forecast model, but the state stuck with it in large part because no one has come up with a better way of estimating the likely return of salmon from the complicated, ecological black box of the North Pacific.
Scientists don’t much about what happens to salmon at sea and are now discovering that some of what they thought they knew was wrong.
The sibling model, Brenner said Thursday, “does give us some nice realistic bounds. It’s super nice to see these returns for sure. There was a lot of doom and gloom.
“(But) it’s looking pretty good.”
On the ground in Cordova, where Haught lives with the commercial fishermen whose moods swing with the size of the salmon returns, he was a little more upbeat.
“It’s just a dramatic difference,” he said. “So far, we’re looking like real, quote-unquote ‘normal’ here. The average size is up. The fish just look great.”
The size increase is largely due to the return of 5-year-old fish this year. Sixty percent of the return last year was 1-3s, Haught said; those are fish that spend a year in freshwater before going to sea for three years.
This year, the run is back to 70 to 80 percent 2-3s and 1-4s – those bigger, 5-year-old fish.
“We’re back to fishing,” he said. “I can’t describe how happy everyone is about that.”
The scientists, however, continue to ponder the disappearance of the older sockeye last year. Haught is as baffled as others by what happened. Salmon live a life of death, but it classically has a predictable pattern of decreasing mortality with age.
Tens of billions of eggs are spawned; most never hatch. Those that do produce billions of alevins; most die before becoming fry.
An average, female coho, according to Fish and Game, will spawn 2,500 eggs. About 15 percent of them will hatch. Of those 375 young fish, only 30 will survive their first year in freshwater. Ten will be lucky to make it to sea.
Only four will grow to become adults, and only two will make it to the spawning grounds. But the percentage surviving every year after making it to sea classically goes up, not down.
Thus the mystery of 2018.
“Why die between four and five years old?” Haught asked. That’s not supposed to happen. What caused it? Lack of food? Predation? Too much competition with other salmon?
Haught did note the surviving Copper sockeye last year were both smaller and skinnier, which could point to food shortages in the ocean. But “The Blob,” an unusual pool of hot water in the Pacific everyone now wants to blame for every ecological oddity simple because The Blob itself was odd, was gone by the time the missing fish headed back for the Copper.
So if there was a food shortage, what caused it?
The black box
The North Pacific ecosystem is a constantly churning mix of salmon, whales, pollock, halibut, sea lions, arrowtooth flounder, sharks, herring, hooligan, rockfish, murres, gulls, sandlance and more both feeding on each other and feeding each other.
The system presents an ecological mystery yet to be untangled, Brenner said, and it might never be untangled thought efforts are underway.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Canadian scientist Dick Beamish, a team of researchers from five nations went to sea in February and March to begin trying to sort out what happens there.
- Pink salmon, expected to be the most abundant species in the Gulf, were low in number.
- Coho salmon, long believed to be a coastal species relatively low in number, were found 600 miles to sea and were the second most abundant species caught.
- Schools of salmon appeared where solitary feeders were expected.
- Skinny salmon in poor condition mixed in with fat salmon in good condition in the same areas, sometimes of the same species.
- An apparent north-south split appeared between sockeye and other salmon with the sockeye appearing to prefer cooler northern Gulf waters.
What finally comes out of the wealth of data collected remains to be seen, but it has given scientists a lot to chew on. The ocean has long been known to play a huge role in Alaska salmon survival.
The disastrous salmon years of the 1970s have been blamed on unusually cold water conditions in the North Pacific.
The New York Times might have concluded 2018 was an Alaska nightmare, but the Times reporter clearly didn’t talk to anyone who was around in the early 1970s or bother to consult the catch data from the years when Alaska salmon runs were in such bad shape there were questions as to whether the state could continue to support a commercial fishing industry.
The total, 1974 commercial harvest was 21 million salmon – pinks, sockeyes, chums, cohos and Chinook combined. The chum salmon catch alone nearly equaled that in 2018. The pink catch was about twice as high, the sockeye catch more than twice as high.
The total 2018 harvest of 114.5 million salmon of all species was about five and a half times that of 1974, and spawning goals – goals which are in many cases orders of magnitude above those in place in 1974 – were met in the majority of Alaska streams and rivers.
Alaskans have short memories if the report was true that no one remembered what bad really looks like. Then again, the state’s population is extremely fluid and those who arrived in the ’80s and later have been spoiled by a long string of summers when the Kenai and the Copper rivers are full of prized sockeye.
This appears to be another of those.
Runs now just beginning could fade in the days ahead. And the second-run of sockeye to the Kenai – the biggest sockeye run there – is just entering lower Cook Inlet.
But the general rules in fisheries management are these:
- If the fish come back early in large numbers, you’re likely looking at a big return.
- And if fish of the same species come back strong in multiple areas, you can expect they will generally come back strong in most areas.
Both of these truisms bode well for the Kenai this year, and the Copper is already well on its way to exceeding expectations. Nearly everywhere around the northeast rim of the Gulf of Alaska, the salmon that didn’t show in nearly the numbers expected last year are coming back strong and in some cases very strong.
The more than 27,000 fish through the Russian River weir as of Thursday is already 5,000 above the minimum spawning goal and 17 times the number on the last year.
In the past 20 years, the only year that has come close to putting so many fish in-river so early was 2009 when more than 19,000 had passed the weir by June 15 and the Russian sanctuary was opened to fishing.
The bag limit was doubled two days later. Despite that, more than 52,000 sockeye made it past the weir – more than 10,000 in excess of the maximum spawning goal.
About the 59,000 more were harvested by anglers, according to regional sport fisheries supervisor Tom Vania, who is expecting another sizable harvest this year.
The current five-year, average harvest is 26,200, according to Fish and Game. This year’s harvest is expected to be well above that. The report of a river plugged with salmon saw a rush of anglers heading south from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula stream for the weekend.
The good times appear to be back.
Correction: Stormy Haught’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.