Bristol Bay Notches Another sockeye run record, more salmon runs struggling


Another year, another record breaking salmon in Bristol Bay. Last year’s catch of 67.7 million fish was a record and a call to protect this watershed. As of July 21, more than 76 million fish were returned to Bristol Bay and its tributaries.

The run is so big that reports are coming in that boats and fishing gear are literally sinking due to an overwhelming amount of sockeye salmon. And before people wonder about the sustainability of such seemingly gluttonous catches, fishermen cannot harvest salmon until their respective escapement goals are met – ie. enough fish have made it into the river to spawn successfully.

“After a record season like this year, there is no doubt that Bristol Bay is an extraordinary place that deserves extraordinary protection,” said Elizabeth Herendeen of Businesses for Bristol Bay. “It is an economic engine that generates billions of dollars in annual revenue, supports more than 15,000 renewable fishing jobs and supplies millions of pounds of nutritious wild protein. That’s why businesses across the country are calling on the EPA to finalize Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay by the end of this year; it is a national treasure that we cannot afford to lose.”

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However, other salmon runs throughout Alaska and Bristol Bay are not seeing the same productivity. Bristol Bay’s Chinook and Coho runs are experiencing relatively weak runs, and some tributaries in Alaska are seeing record lows on the verge of collapse. Into one flows the Yukon River, the Chinook, where “the broad drainage may be less than 50,000 fish, which is so small that escapement purposes may not be attained in any tributary.”

So what’s causing the boom for Bristol Bay socks and the slump for other runs? Well, it’s complicated and multifaceted. Dr. Daniel Schindler is a professor of fisheries science at the University of Washington and has spent a long time in Bristol Bay studying sockeye. He shared his thoughts with KYUK, a news source for Alaska’s Yukon Delta. Schindler offered some insight into what might contribute to the rise and fall, but exact scientific explanations will be difficult to pin down.

“What we have are correlations,” Schindler said. “And the correlations are that when we’ve had very warm — very hot, even — sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea, Bristol Bay has done very well. And other species in the region haven’t.” The different behaviors and life histories of these different species “are making chinook and chums vulnerable to something that isn’t minnows — at least the sockeye that are returning to Bristol Bay.”

Another aspect that can contribute to starbursts in Bristol Bay is the water conditions in the rearing lakes. As they get warmer, plankton production increases in these lakes, which has direct implications for juvenile bream. “So over the last 60 years, we actually see that juvenile smolts are growing much faster now than they were 30 or 40 years ago, which means they’re leaving for the ocean as larger smolts. And apparently, that has to do with their higher survival rates in the ocean.”

It’s a bittersweet reminder that climate change will produce winners and losers for fisheries around the world. The communities of Bristol Bay are undoubtedly benefiting greatly from the booming runs. But anglers targeting Chinook in the Yukon drainage may not even be allowed to fish this season, due to historically poor runs. In the near future, climate and fisheries science will become increasingly important. But in the meantime, protecting these wild places, ensuring our fisheries remain abundant and sustainable, and keeping these watersheds intact is the best insurance policy we have against the changing impacts of climate change.

“Bristol Bay continues to reign as a wild fish powerhouse and in doing so supports Indigenous traditions, a robust sport fishing economy and a commercial fishery that puts healthy food on tables around the world. Clean water and healthy fish habitat are an essential component of these record runs, which is exactly why we need sustainable protection for the region’s resources as soon as possible.” Meghan Barker, Bristol Bay Organizer for Trout Unlimited in Alaska.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently accepting public comments on proposed Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay until September 6, 2022. See www.savebristolbay.org/take-action today to protect this amazing watershed.

Cover photo by Will Claussen.

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