Bristol Bay reds late again; late run Kenai kings start strong

  • The sun sets on a salmon boat at Egegik on the Fourth of July in this Journal file photo. The Fourth is traditionally the halfway point in the Bristol Bay sockeye run, but for the second year in a row the reds are showing up a few days late. Photo/File/AJOC

It’s the second late run in a row for the state’s most valuable salmon fishery, and the late run of king salmon in the state’s most popular river are showing up early in strong numbers.

Bristol Bay, the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon producing region, experienced a massive late run of sockeye salmon last year, contributing with other market forces to drop the ex-vessel price of salmon to 50 cents per pound, or about half the historic average. This year, most signs point to a similarly late run.

Late doesn’t necessarily mean below forecast.

Last year, the historical midpoint of July 4 came and went with only 8.87 million fish harvested, about 35 percent less than the five-year average. All signs pointed to a Bristol Bay harvest of less than 20 million fish. By the end of the season, a late burst of sockeye produced one of the largest runs on record.

This year, the midpoint has yielded even fewer fish than last. By July 4, fishermen harvested a total 7.3 million salmon of all species, according to daily harvest tables. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest to be 29.5 million, far less than the 2015 harvest of more than 36 million but still greater than the 20-year average of 23.2 million.

This year, some signs are pointing to the same kind of late, strong run as in 2015.

By July 11, the total run in Bristol Bay totaled 27 million fish, according to ADFG management biologist Tim Sands. Set and drift netters have harvested 17.7 million sockeye salmon, or 18.3 million salmon of all species.

Sands, who oversees three of Bristol Bay’s districts, said he’s noticed several trends similar to last year including indices from the Port Moller test fishery, which is the region’s best in-run metric for run size and timing.

“It’s definitely looking a lot like last year as far as run timing,” said Sands. “And the Port Moller indices are also similar in that regard. The biggest indices were on the 8th and the 9th (of July). Its certainly indicates it’s not normal run timing. Most of us watching this feel things are between 4 to 6 days late, and coming close to forecast. Without speaking for anybody else, I can say it looks similar to last year.”

Sands said each of his three districts is both making escapement and providing plenty of commercial fishing opportunities.

“Biologically speaking, I’m very happy for the districts I manage,” he said.

Fred West, an ADFG fisheries biologist, said last year’s late run is coinciding with another of last year’s anomalies, small fish. In 2015 the average weight of a Bristol Bay sockeye salmon measured 5.12 pounds, smaller than the historical average and the 2014 average of 5.92 pounds.

This year, depending on how much time they’ve spent in the ocean, some are even smaller.

“So far, in 2016, the lengths for the two-ocean fish are bigger than last year but still below the average,” West said. “The three-oceans are slightly smaller than last year, and still well below average.”

West said the average weight for all ages this year 5.3 pounds, about half a pound shy of the 1970-2015 average of 5.9 pounds.

Kenai River late run kings

As the state’s largest salmon fishery waits for its midpoint, managers of the state’s most popular river are expanding opportunities for both recreational and commercial fishermen.

An improving run of king salmon on the Kenai River has prompted fisheries managers to loosen the lynchpin of the area’s commercial sockeye management, which ties king sport fishing to commercial sockeye.

Beginning on July 9, ADFG allowed the use of bait in the Kenai River from its mouth upstream to 300 yards downstream of Slikok Creek. ADFG managers have typically left such restrictions in the last few years until later in the season in the face of statewide dwindling chinook production. 

Paired restrictions between the king sport fishery and the commercial sockeye fishery require sockeye fishermen to have limited hours when kings are closed to bait. Managers place a no bait restriction on Kenai kings when it is projected fewer than 22,500 kings total will return to the river.

This year, ADFG has forecast 30,000 kings in the late run, about half the average over the last 30 years but at the top end of the escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 fish.

So far, the late run Kenai kings in 2016 have outperformed the last three years. As of July 11, 6,419 kings have passed ADFG sonar counters. The preceding three years produced an average passage of 3,262 by the same date.

With expanding sportfishing for more kings comes expanded commercial fishing for more sockeye.

The late sockeye run on the Kenai River looks better than prior years as well. ADFG has counted over 280,000 sockeye as of July 11, outpacing the most recent three-year average of 138,339.

The ADFG forecasts a total run of approximately 4.7 million sockeye salmon to the Kenai River, or 1 million more than the 20-year average. For the Upper Cook Inlet area, ADFG forecasts 4.1 million fish will be harvested, 1.1 million more than the 20-year average. 

Whether or not the fishermen will have the hours enough to catch them all remains to be seen. ADFG opens Mondays and Thursdays for 12-hour fishing openings for commercial fishing, and can only add 84 hours of extra time per week.

Already, managers added an extra five hours onto a normal 12-hour fishery opening as of a July 11 order which extended commercial salmon fishing with set gillnets in the Kenai, Kasilof, and East Foreland sections of the Upper Subdistrict from 7:00 p.m. until 12:00 midnight on Monday, July 11, 2016.

On July 12, managers announced a 15-hour additional fishing period for sockeye fishermen in those districts.

Last year, the Kenai River commercial setnet sockeye fishery was restricted to 36-hour weeks until getting more fishing time starting July 25, when sport restrictions were also loosened to allow for retention and use of bait.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

07/13/2016 - 11:16am