They’re back


As the gulls circle, a Kenai dipnetter adds another salmon to his pile of fish/Craig Medred photo


After the great Pacific salmon crash of 2020 and early fears about the Alaska salmon run of 2021, the 49th state looks to be easing into another season of Piscean bounty.

As of this writing, Alaska Department of Fish and Game data has the summer’s harvest tracking closer to the 2019 return than the 2020 return, albeit about a week late in timing.

Bristol Bay sockeye are again the big, mid-season driver. A beneficiary of global warming, the Bay is on track to produce another sockeye harvest somewhere around 40 million.

The forecast harvest of 36.4 million is already in the rearview mirror with the preliminary catch numbers, which tend to run a little low due to lags in reporting, at 38.3 million as of Monday.

“Bristol Bay was huge again – close to an all-time record for total return,” noted Bert Lewis, the central region supervisor for commercial fisheries.

The record return came in 2018 when 62.3 million sockeye swarmed the Bay. The commercial harvest hit 41.3 million, the second-largest in a fisheries record that goes back to 1893.

The catch could have been bigger, but processors who planned around a forecast catch of 37.6 million were overwhelmed.  Many of the Bay’s streams were overwhelmed with spawning salmon, but the dreaded “over escapement” commercial fishermen regularly fear will diminish future returns did not materialize.


Some of those fish are returning this year in the crazy mix of different age classes of salmon that comprise the Bay run. There are sockeyes that spend a year in freshwater and two at sea, a year in freshwater and three at sea, two in freshwater and two at sea, two in freshwater and three at sea, one in freshwater and four at sea, and even a few that go to sea for four years the spring after they are spawned.

The easternmost arm of the Bering Sea, the Bay is only about 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle and much closer to Russia than the rest of the U.S. But what makes it unique in Alaska is that it is largely fed by clearwater lakes and streams as opposed to turbid, glacial-fed rivers such as the Copper.

Early scare

World-famous thanks to the skillful marketing of its “first of the season” Alaska sockeye, the Copper kicked off the commercial fishing season with a big, fat bust, but returns unexpectedly picked up late June and early July when they should be in decline.

A harvest that looked like it might not reach 200,000 is now over 330,000 and continues to creep upward. That’s still well short of a preseason forecast harvest of 652,000, but that is due in part to a drop in fishing effort due to a weak start to the run.

As of this writing, the river was about 175,000 sockeye in excess of the goal for fish escaping commercial nets to make it into the river. Had those fish been caught, the catch would be at more than 75 percent of the harvest with the season continuing.

Not that the forecast was great. The total return was pegged at more than 37 percent below the 10-year average in part due to a huge, forest return of 57.4 million pink salmon to Prince William Sound (PWS).

More than 38 million of those fish are expected at hatcheries in the sheltered waters of the Sound just to the north where the turbid, glacially fed Copper empties into the Gulf of Alaska.

Salmon farming, or what Alaskan fishermen prefer to call salmon “ranching,” is big business in the Sound, but a 2017 study looking for long-term damage from the 1989 Exxon Valez oil spill in the Sound instead found indications that Copper sockeyes pay the price for big spills of hatchery salmon. 

“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns,” the scientists reported. “While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns.”

“We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas. Pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species. In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the northeast Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular.”

The state has been loath to dig into these interactions. Bill Templin, the state’s director of fisheries research, has told the Board of Fisheries the issue is just too complicated to tackle.

And he accurately quotes a tried and true scientific cliche that “correlation is not causation.” Documenting a direct link between mobs of hatchery pinks and declines of sockeye is, however, a difficult task.

Pinks, in general, appear to be the biggest beneficiary of a warming North Pacific ocean. They have now reached numbers never seen in recorded history.

Sockeye returns to Cook Inlet, the waterway that laps at the door of Alaska’s largest city, have generally declined since the Sound was turned into a pink salmon factory.

But there, as elsewhere, the catch this year is tracking above the dismal numbers of 2020. At the end of the week, the harvest of 697,000 sockeye was more than 130,000 above the catch at the end of the same week last year.

But it was still way below the five-year average harvest of 1.1 million by the same date. The return does, however – as in 2019 and as with many other sockeye returns this year – appear to be tracking a little late. 
















12 replies »

  1. Perhaps lockdown with Covid last year benefitted our Salmon. This also reduced numbers out and about on boats, net fishing and the ocean liners in our waters!

  2. I would bet that the nuke plant melt down in Japan and the release of radiation laced water into the ocean has done and will continue to damage the fisherie and pretty much everything else in the world’s oceans . I believe that we have screwed ourselves as whole .

  3. This must be the fourth year in a row now of over-escapement in some of these river systems.

  4. The problem is that nobody knows why there are more Sockeye in Bristol Bay and less and less in PWS and Cook Inlet. There are lots of opinions and blame being pointed out. And some makes sense but there is no definite science to guide us. Generally speaking, but by no means absolute, when a fish species goes past the tipping point where there is no harvestable surplus, or the species continues to decline, the reason is that there has been too much over-harvest. Add to that the possibility that hatchery releases create over competition for food, ocean temps, occasional disease, and bad counting methods, it is difficult to pin down the reasons for low abundance. But my bet is that it is a man made problem. Not Nature’s

    • Since this article is about an over abundance in Bristol Bay and not the low abundance seen elsewhere, do you also blame man made causes for the over abundance?

      • Steve O:
        Good Question. The answer is probably yes. Before limited entry there were nowhere near the numbers we are now seeing in the Bay. I believe that good management practices combined with an area that is pretty much devoid of any significant population of competing interests and has remained pristine has resulted in good returns. But that is in BB. But who knows for sure what other ocean or climate factors might be favoring these returns. No one does!
        What we do know from history including the demise of the Atlantic Cod,the PNW Chinook, and the South Atlantic Sea Bass is that over harvesting by humans can and indeed does result in the permanent loss of meaningful harvestable surpluses. And the same thing has happened with the crab fisheries in Cook Inlet and the North Gulf. And seems to be starting to
        occur in PWS and UCI.

      • No kidding..Right Steve-O… I mean, shouldn’t “Global Warming” be consecutive? After all, we are paying trillions of dollars and millions of kids are being brainwashed because of that fraud right?

      • AF,
        Nobody has all the answers, that’s for sure, but we have some amount of data that gives us some idea of what is happening. Prior to large scale commercial fishing we know that Bristol Bay was boom and bust, like many other river systems. We know that Bristol Bay salmon aren’t being overharvested by any means nowadays. We know that before limited entry we were in a low abundance period and we know that we were in a negative (cooler) phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, we know that a positive (warmer) phase results in higher salmon production. We also know when fish traps ended and when fish ranching began, we know the harvest numbers and estimated return numbers for decades. We know when we stopped hunting marine mammals and we know how much certain marine mammals eat. There is a lot we don’t know about and most of that happens out where you can’t see land and under the waves.

        Anyways my point is, we can’t blame man for the problems in one river if the same problems are seen in other rivers without the same input from man and man can’t take credit for solving problems in one river if the same problems aren’t solved with the same method in those other rivers. There are so many variables that to make sense of it all can be too much. Mother nature can be a fickle bitch.

  5. And to think our state DEC & current administration would risk the last great salmon run in Alaska with a Canadian gold mining operation parked at the headwaters. Some days we really can see what is driving the decisions down in Juneau…corporate lobbying not Alaskan common sense.

    • There’s a Canadian gold mine that is going to wipe out all of the salmon in the entirety of Bristol Bay?

  6. Warmer ocean temperatures, may or may not , have contributed to the record run in Bristol Bay. A few scientists have put forth that hypothesis, but it is not a proven theory, nor necessarily a plausible one. Many other areas of Alaska were not as lucky with their salmon returns. Just look at the Copper River.

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