Heavy nets, and wallets, for Bristol Bay and Norton Sound fishermen

  • A brailor of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is loaded in this Journal file photo. The largest return of sockeye since records began in 1893 came back to Bristol Bay this year, smashing records for harvest and ex-vessel value. (Photo/File/AJOC)

Despite poor salmon runs dominating the news across the Gulf of Alaska, fishermen in Bristol Bay and western Alaska brought home heavy nets and wallets this year.

Salmon runs in Bristol Bay and Norton Sound arrived in force and smashed records — again. It’s the second year in a row that runs have come in exceptionally large in the two areas.

Bristol Bay measured an inshore run of 62.3 million sockeye, the largest run since 1893 and more than 69 percent greater than the 20-year average run of 36.9 million. It’s the fourth year in a row that Bristol Bay inshore runs have topped 50 million, and this year came in far above the preseason forecast of 51.3 million fish.

Set and drift gillnet fishermen brought in a total harvest of 41.3 million, the second-highest harvest on record, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s year-end season summary for the area. On top of that, prices stayed significantly higher than usual as the supply flooded the market, bringing in a record ex-vessel value for the area as well— more than double what fishermen have made in the history of the fishery.

The preliminary ex-vessel value of $281 million is more than 242 percent above the 20-year average of $116 million, and 39 percent above the previous record of $202 million, set in 1990.

Though the run was much larger than usual, the processors were able to keep up, in part because the sockeye didn’t all arrive at the same time. The east side runs to Egegik and Ugashik were about 10 days later than the average, while the run to the Nushagak and Togiak areas were only two or three days late, said Nushagak/Togiak area management biologist Tim Sands.

“It really worked out well for the processors here because there was such disparity in the run timing in Nushagak and the east side that there was never any limits or suspensions because of capacity issues,” he said. “The east side didn’t really hit until after it was starting to slow down on the west side, and that made it so they were never plugged. We had at least one processor buying in the Nushagak district that wasn’t traditionally in the Nushagak district. I think many of the processors would have liked to have more fish.”

Usually, as more fish flood the market throughout the summer, sockeye salmon prices begin to drop. However, this year they didn’t. That may be in part due to poor harvests across the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak to Southeast, though fishermen in Bristol Bay are also taking steps to improve the quality of their product on their own, said Division of Commercial Fisheries Deputy Director Forrest Bowers.

“Their ex-vessel price has been ticking up the past few years anyway,” he said. “They’ve been doing a good job on their own, but they definitely got a little help this year.”

Up north, it was less sockeye salmon and more chums, silvers and pinks flooding the rivers. Norton Sound’s commercial fishermen smashed their 1978 all-time harvest record of $3.5 million in ex-vessel value with a $4 million season, mixed between chum and silver salmon.

It was a peak season in many ways. In addition to a new record of 260,000 silver salmon harvested and the second-highest chum harvest in the area’s history, the number of licenses fished reached a high of 155, the highest since 1987, said area management biologist Jim Menard.

“This is the all-time greatest year we’ve had,” he said. “We went from a low of 12 (permits fished) in 2002, and now we’re up to 155.”

Norton Sound has struggled with keeping processors in the area to buy fish. Several years passed in the mid-2000s with no processor available at all, so no fishing was available.

However, Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. stepped in with a fish processing plant in Unalakleet and fishing has opened up again. This year presented a challenge because of the sheer number of fish being harvested but the plant was able to handle it, Menard said.

One species that smashed a record but didn’t contribute much to the harvest was pink salmon, though. In the Nome River, ADFG counted 3.2 million of them, obliterating the previous record of 1.6 million, he said.

“Luckily for us, this year, the water was higher,” Menard said. “I remember actually (pink salmon) were both about 1.2 million in 2008 and 2016 both, but in 2008 had just a touch lower water and those rivers just reeked.”

However, there isn’t much of a market for pink salmon in the area, so there hasn’t been much interest in harvesting them, he said. The same is true for the herring in Norton Sound, which NSEDC is studying as a potential market expansion.

The pink salmon burst in Norton Sound is fairly unique among salmon fisheries in Alaska this year. In addition to underwhelming king and sockeye runs across the Gulf of Alaska, pink salmon harvest fell behind expectations, with the total coming in about half of what the department had projected.

That includes Bristol Bay, where the pink salmon harvest came in about 55 percent the 20-year average, according to the year-end summary. That isn’t a huge deal for the fishermen, though, as pink salmon don’t typically constitute a huge percentage of the annual harvest, Sands said.

“We don’t have a very big pink run compared to Cook Inlet or Prince William Sound,” he said. “It has been better in the past, and it was lower than we would expect in an even year.”

Bristol Bay, like other areas, has been experiencing later runs than historical trends in recent years, Sands said. This year followed that trend. The large run led to some rivers overescaping ADFG management goals, and the department will watch what happens about four or five years from now when this year’s offspring will return as adults to see how the large escapements affect production, he said.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/26/2018 - 11:00am

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