Alaska’s Bristol Bay sees another record salmon run

Field & Flow has reported some troubling news about Northwest salmon runs this year: a 90 percent decline in Yukon River salmon, a paucity of kings on the Kenai Peninsula, and endangered Chinook in the Columbia and northern California. But in Bristol Bay, the sockeye, again this year, are running gangbusters.

At last count Thursday, commercial fishing crews had caught 53.325 million walleyes in Southwest Alaska’s fisheries since the season opened June 1, bringing the state total to 74 million. With the season heading into early August, officials are predicting another statewide record year. In Bristol Bay, they have already broken the previous regional record 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 main spawning grounds, is at 69.7 million, surpassing the year’s record. passed by 2 million. In the Wood River alone, counters have recorded over 3 million fish.

Sherol Mershon, who owns a bed and breakfast and has fished commercially for stock near Wood’s Head for 45 years, told Alaska Public Media, “They just pour. Sometimes there are 500 in the air, breaking the water. When it’s quiet, you can see really well,” she said. “I lay in my bed at night with the window open and I hear them dancing, 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 travel in sustainably managed fisheries, working in small boats. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, they caught about 2.4 million sockeye on Thursday alone. Processors have struggled, working 16-hour shifts, to keep pace.

But it’s not just commercial fishermen who benefit from such abundance. “We’ve had a good number of sockeye, which is great,” 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 only sockeye, they take other types of salmon as bycatch, including kings and chums, which aren’t doing well. “You’ll hear someone has a 70-pound king in the net; meanwhile we haven’t seen a 70-pounder in a long time. This is bad, but I support commercial fishing. If they let all those socks move up, we don’t know how that would affect things.”

photo of salmon fisherman with socks
A nice sockeye caught by Rebekka Redd with Angler’s Alibi Lodge on the Alagnak River. Courtesy of Angler’s Alibi

Flipping is the best recreational fishing and more. “Such large sockeye runs provide the food and nutrients that support our rainbow, grayling and char fisheries. In fact, all that biomass supports the entire ecosystem, not just other fish species, but bears and even lice that feed on riverside vegetation.” While sockeye aren’t exactly a glamorous species for fly fishermen, his clients get excited about catching sockeye because they can keep fish to eat, knowing it’s a sustainable fishery.

Scientists expect that Bristol Bay’s current sockeye run may be the largest in several hundred years. But the news is not all glorious. Chinook, king and chum numbers in the Bay are down. And sockeye runs along the Gulf of Alaska have been declining for the past decade.

Dan Schindler, a professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences at the University of Washington who has studied for years, explained to Alaska Public Media that scientists do not fully understand the reasons for these fluctuations. “In terms of the mechanism, it’s really hard to pin it down,” he said. “What we have are correlations. And the correlations are that when we’ve had very warm — up to hot, even — sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea, Bristol Bay has done very well. And other species in the region have not.”

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