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.
“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 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.
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.”
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.