Poor pink runs forecast again; return to ‘normal’ in Bristol Bay
Next summer may be a slow one for Southeast and Bristol Bay salmon fishermen.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s annual salmon forecasts for the Southeast and Bristol Bay regions predict weaker runs for the 2019 season. In Southeast’s case, it’s the pink salmon predicted to come up short compared to recent averages; in Bristol Bay, it’s the sockeye.
About 18 million pink salmon are predicted to be harvested in Southeast Alaska in 2019, placing the run in the weak range, or between 20 percent and 40 percent of the 59-year average in the history of the fishery. The forecasted number is about half the recent 10-year average of 36 million pinks, according to the ADFG forecast. If the forecast holds true, it will be the lowest odd-year harvest since 1987.
The low number of juveniles in 2018 was unexpected, as the previous year’s escapements met goals.
“This indicates that brood year 2017 pink salmon likely experienced poor freshwater and/or early marine survival,” according to the forecast.
The forecast comes with an 80 percent confidence interval, but some uncertainty comes form the warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska. An exceptionally warm body of water in the Gulf from 2013-16, nicknamed the “Blob,” appeared to have dissipated but has now returned. ADFG managers connected the disastrously low pink salmon returns in 2016 with poor marine survival due to warm conditions in the Gulf as well.
“The return of anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska may have a negative impact on the survival of pink salmon,” the forecast states. “Although the weak harvest forecast in 2019 is consistent with poor survival, the impact of Gulf of Alaska temperatures is unknown and adds uncertainty to the forecast.”
In Bristol Bay, the total run is estimated to come in at 40.18 million sockeye salmon, with a commercial harvest of 27.6 million. That’s slightly less than the recent 10-year average harvest of 30 million reds, though greater than the long-term average of 34.2 million, and significantly less than this year’s harvest of 41.3 million.
The majority of the run is expected to be age class 1.3 fish, or those that spend one year in freshwater and three years in the ocean.
Of the five districts, the largest run is expected back in the Naknek-Kvichak district, with a forecast of 16.12 million sockeye. The second-largest is predicted to be the Nushagak district with 10.38 million, followed by the Egegik, Ugashik and Togiak districts.
Forecasting the sockeye run in Bristol Bay presents a challenge, as nine different rivers contribute significant sockeye numbers to the total run from four different age classes. The numbers are presented in the forecast with an 80 percent confidence interval as well, based on historical contrasts between forecasts and runs.
ADFG always provides a caveat in forecasts: they are primarily meant for planning purposes, not as a promise to the fleet on management. The managers will use in-season catch and escapement data as available to determine openings and restrictions where necessary as the run develops.
Bristol Bay has had two strong sockeye years in a row, while Southeast Alaska has had three tough years for salmon fishermen. The 2016 salmon season brought exceptionally poor pink runs atop restrictions meant to protect troubled returning king salmon stocks; 2017 brought even more king salmon restrictions, forcing an early closure on the spring troll fishery, and 2018 again brought some disappointingly low pink salmon harvests — the lowest since the mid-1970s.
The total harvest of approximately 7.8 million pinks, worth about $11.4 million, was less than a third of the 23 million forecasted harvest.
The poor pink salmon returns have been roundly connected to the anomalously warm ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in fisheries around southern coast of the state. Poor sockeye returns across the Gulf in 2018 were pinned on the warm sea temperatures as well.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].