The sockeye salmon came late to Alaska’s Bristol Bay this year, but now look on track to exceed an Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast that called for a harvest of 34.6 million of the fish.
Returns to all the major river systems in the Bay are at or past their normal peaks, but it is likely another 3 to 4 million sockeye will be caught. The five-year average catch records about 3.5 million additional fish from now to the end of the run, according to state data, and the fish appear to be late this year.
Late-arriving sockeye would only serve to boost that number. Fishery managers were expecting harvests of fish bound for the Togiak River drainage to start increasing this week.
The number of fish escaping to Bay spawning grounds is at or over goals in most drainages. The Naknek River has over-escaped its upper goal of 2 million spawners by another 2 million fish, according to state reports.
The Egegik River has over-escaped its upper goal of 2 million fish by more than 300,00 sockeye, according to start reports, and it is the same for the Wood River where the upper goal is 1.8 million.
The Ugashik River is fast closing in on its upper goal of 1.4 million. The Kvichak River is near double its minimum goal of 2 million. The Igushik River is at 247,000 sockeye, midway in the biological escapement range of 150,000 to 400,000.
The only system that is lagging is the Togiak, and biologists believe those fish are still inbound.
In Cook Inlet at the doorstep to Alaska’s largest city, over-escapement of sockeye salmon has become a hot-button issue with commercial fishermen claiming it decimates sockeye salmon returns to the Kenai River.
Over-escapement has not been a problem in the Bay although state researchers in 2007 reported it lowered production in three of 40 over-escaped systems they studied.
This is not the view of the 1,100 or so commercial fishermen active in the Inlet who find themselves at odds with tens of thousands of anglers and personal-use fishermen wanting the state to put more fish in the Kenai where the latter can catch them with dipnets or rod and reel.
During a federal court in hearing in May, an attorney for the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) – a lobby for commercial fishermen which once largely dictated how salmon were managed in the Inlet – told a judge that the state has been “actively trying to put my client out of business.”
The basis of that argument is over-escapement: The state allows so many salmon up the river to spawn that their young overwhelm the system and in the competition for food millions of them starve to death or go to sea so skinny and weak they cant’ survive.
As a result, not as many adult salmon return, and the Kenai fails to reach its maximum sustained yield (MSY). MSY has long been the holy grail of commercial fisheries management, but it has come under fire in Alaska and elsewhere.
It was much debated when the state Board of Fisheries met earlier this year to set regulations for the Kenai. Anchorage-educated gillnetter Steve Tvenstrup told the board that if it just reduced the escapement, the Kenai could produce a catch of 4 to 6 million sockeye per year.
The river has topped 4 million only five times in the last 20 years, and it has only twice reached 6 million.
Ray Beamesderfer – a nationally respected fisheries biologist hired by the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association – told the Board the state should instead junk MSY and apply a new standard of maximum sustained recruitment (MSR) to benefit anglers and dipnetters.
MSR puts more fish in the river and, from an ecological standpoint, better feeds the environment. Not only anglers benefit. By managing for MSR, the bears in the woods , the rainbow trout, and other fauna and flora that have historically played second fiddle to the desires of commercial fishermen.
In the Bay – a vast region home to fewer than 7,500 people, about an eighth of that of the Kenai alone – the only tussles over who gets to catch the fish come between commercial fishermen jockeying for position on the fishing grounds.
The population of the Bay is, in fact, so small most of the commercial fishermen have to come from elsewhere to fish, and the fish return in such numbers that the seasonal processing plants now sometimes find themselves forced to put commercial fishermen on limits to keep sockeye carcasses from flooding their plants.
The Bay has long produced a lot of fish, but now – thanks to a warming North Pacific Ocean – it is producing unusually large numbers.
The 20-year-average harvest of 26.2 million Bay sockeye has regularly been exceeded in recent years. The latest five-year average is about 39.5 million – a 50 percent increase – and the catch this year could end up close to that average.
How long this sort of bounty can continue no one knows. University of Washington fisheries researcher Daniel Schindler, who has spent much of his career studying sockeye in the Bay, last year told the UW News that it is now obvious that “climate warming is making rivers more productive for the food juvenile salmon eat, meaning their growth rate is speeding up. That puts the salmon on a growth trajectory that moves them to the ocean faster.”
More young salmon going to the ocean sooner has so far meant more adult salmon returning to Bay streams and rivers, but no one can predict if this will last.
“With climate change, is there a limit to how productive the ocean will become? We just don’t know where there’s a tipping point, especially as we fill the ocean with hatchery competitors,” Schindler said. “We need to be really cognizant about overstressing the marine resources that support wild salmon.”
The Bay has no hatcheries, but they are big business in other parts of the state. Alaska is a world leader in the production of hatchery ranched pink salmon. It has been hypothesized, though not proven, that large returns of pinks to industrial-scale hatcheries in Prince William Sound could be depressing sockeye returns to the Copper River and possibly the Inlet.
Copper River fishermen have suffered through a tough season with a catch to date of less than 100,000 fish – about a twelveth of the 2019 catch and a seventh of what what was from the beginning a weak forecast for 2020.
The Inlet fishery has not started off well either with the catch still below a half million.