Bristol Bay could boom again; SE pinks, chinook still down

  • Fishing boats line up to deliver sockeye salmon in the Egegik district in Bristol Bay in this Journal file photo. Another boom year is forecast for 2021 in the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery with a total return of more than 50 million fish for the sixth straight year. (Photo/File/AJOC)

For better or worse, recent trends in some of Alaska’s primary salmon fisheries are likely to continue in 2021, according to early predictions from state biologists.

On the positive side of the ledger, Bristol Bay is expected to see yet another strong return of sockeye salmon next year; the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a total run of just more than 51 million sockeye attempting to reach the bay’s nine large river systems.

Such a return should translate into a commercial harvest of nearly 37.8 million sockeye and an area-wide escapement of about 13.7 million fish, according to the 2021 Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon Forecast.

A total run of 51 million fish would be approximately 45 percent greater than the long-term average run of 35.1 million sockeye to the bay based on harvest and escapement estimates going back to 1963 but “just” about 6 percent greater than the 10-year average return of 48.1 million sockeye as the fishery has continued to build on itself of late.

Similarly, a harvest of 37 million sockeye would be 40 percent greater than the long-term average harvest of nearly 22 million fish and 13 percent greater than the average harvest of 32.2 million sockeye since 2011, according to the forecast.

The Bristol Bay fishery is typically the largest commercial sockeye fishery in the world and the most lucrative salmon fishery in the state in terms of the total value of the fish harvested.

ADFG Bristol Bay Area Research Biologist Greg Buck said the latest strong sockeye forecast is largely based on the expected continuation of “massive” returns of 1.2-age sockeye — those that spend one year rearing in freshwater and two in the ocean — to the bay’s western rivers in recent years, primarily the Nushagak and Wood near Dillingham.

Biologists thought those Westside returns could be an indicator for large 1.3-age fish in 2020 and they were mostly right, Buck said, particularly for the Naknek River on the bay’s Eastside.

“The Naknek just blew the doors off the numbers last year,” he said in an interview. “Now the question is: How long is this going to play out?”

More than 14 million sockeye were harvested in the Naknek-Kvichak district last summer, which was 66 percent greater than the 20-year average harvest for the area. Even still, approximately 4.1 million sockeye escaped into the Naknek River, according to ADFG, more than double the river's upper-end escapement goal of 2 million sockeye.

Buck also noted that the forecasts for Bristol Bay sockeye have borne out to be lower than actual returns in recent years.

The forecast for this past summer pegged the 2020 run at 46.6 million sockeye before more than 58 million fish showed up for the sixth consecutive year of a 50 million-plus fish run. The 2018 run of 62.3 million fish was the largest on record going back to 1893, according to ADFG, and was 21 percent greater than the preseason forecast.

“If we have had any trend over the past 10 years or so we’ve been kind of conservative with the forecast so I kind of took the governor off this year and said ‘go for it,’” Buck said.

By district, the 2021 Bristol Bay sockeye run forecast breaks down as follows: 17.3 million fish to the Naknek-Kvichak district; 15 million to the Nushagak district; 11.2 million to the Egegik district; 6.6 million to the Ugashik district; and just more than 800,000 to the Togiak district.

Buck added that the official state prediction is right in line with a forecast for a 2021 Bristol Bay sockeye run of 50.9 million fish from University of Washington experts, who conduct extensive research on the Alaska fishery.

As for why the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery has performed exceptionally well in recent years when many other salmon stocks across Alaska and down the West Coast are struggling, he said the possibility that a warmer Bering Sea is more productive continues to be a popular theory but acknowledged that is little more than an educated guess at this point as well.

“There’s obviously something deep-ocean about this,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the life cycle we don’t know much about.”

There also is no apparent correlation between the strong 1.2 and 1.3-age classes and poorer returns of older sockeye.

And while a larger harvestable surplus of salmon is generally a good thing, most of the sockeye that have returned to Bristol Bay of late have been small. Those salmon harvested this year averaged 5.1 pounds, which is nearly a pound smaller than the long-term average size, according to ADFG.

“It’s pretty straightforward; they’re growing like gangbusters out there at sea for some reason so they’re maturing early. Whatever’s going on out there is putting their hormones in overdrive,” Buck said of the smaller sockeye.

Smaller than average returning salmon have become a trend statewide.

Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Andy Wink wrote via email that the forecast for next year “looks really good” even if there is a trend towards smaller and younger sockeye.

Wink wrote that although most Bristol Bay sockeye are frozen after being headed and gutted and smaller “H&G” sockeye often fetch lower per pound wholesale prices, poor runs elsewhere helped limit the global sockeye supply this year. As a result, prices for four- to six-pound sizes are currently quite high, according to Wink, so he wouldn’t be surprised to see what price gap there is start to close. A lot of it has to do with the fact that sockeye come from wild fisheries “so we get what we get, and so does the market,” he wrote.

“We have seen those in the supply chain successfully adjusting to smaller fish sizes, and that will likely continue so long as we see runs that skew younger and smaller,” Wink continued. “Even though smaller sockeye produce a slightly lower fillet yield and can sell for a dollar/pound less in wholesale markets, there doesn’t appear to be a drastic difference when it comes to retail prices or consumer demand.”

And though it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen with millions of salmon facing seemingly just as many variables impacting their survival, but Buck added that “right now it looks like (the strong runs) will play out for a few more years.”

Southeast pinks, chinook

The immediate outlooks for two of Southeast’s biggest salmon fisheries aren’t nearly as bright.

The joint NOAA Fisheries-Alaska Department of Fish and Game 2021 Southeast Pink Salmon Harvest Forecast state’s the regional harvest of the smallest and most prolific Pacific salmon is expected to be “average” at approximately 28 million pinks, but ADFG Southeast Pink and Chum Salmon Project Leader Andy Piston said in an interview that there is a caveat to that.

Southeast pinks runs — particularly those to inside waters in the northern part of the region — have become increasingly odd-year dominant, he said, meaning more fish tend to return in odd-numbered years.

That’s because pinks have a two-year life cycle that is much more strict than other species of salmon that often have several age classes of fish return in a given year. Pinks do not.

“You have all your eggs in one basket, so it takes time for odd and even years to bounce back,” Piston said.

To that end, a harvest of 28 million pinks is classified as average for all years but is actually “quite a bit below the average” for odd years in Southeast, he said.

The 10-year average Southeast pink harvest is 34 million fish and the 28 million-fish forecast is just more than half of the odd-year harvest since 2001, according to ADFG figures.

Additionally, next year’s Southeast pinks were spawned from the 2019 return that yielded a “really poor” harvest of about 21 million fish, Piston said.

He attributed the smaller returns to poor early marine survival, which many biologists have linked to warmer-than-normal Gulf of Alaska water temperatures in recent years.

“The overall trend has been downward since the early 2000s and the pattern is similar for sockeye salmon, coho salmon and chinook,” Piston said. “It’s pretty clear that there’s large-scale environmental conditions that are driving all of this.”

However, he said there is hope in the fact that water temperatures in the northern Southeast waters of Icy and Chatham straits were again close to normal this summer and surface temperatures in the Gulf have also moderated.

“Now (temperatures) are pretty close to near average in the northern Gulf of Alaska. Hopefully we’ll see some better survival for these fish,” he said, adding that short-lived pinks will likely offer the first clue as to whether or not gulf-raised salmon in general could start an upswing.

However, managers do not think Stikine or Taku River chinook salmon will start their rebounds in 2021. According to the forecast for the large Southeast rivers published Nov. 30, just 9,900 large chinook are expected to return to the Stikine River near Wrangell next summer, which is well below the escapement goal of 14,000-28,000 fish.

The Stikine had a chinook escapement of just 10,670 fish from a terminal run of 11,750 large fish this year, according to ADFG figures.

Similarly, the terminal run forecast for the Taku near Juneau is for 10,300 large chinook next year, which would also be well below the escapement goal range of 19,000 to 36,000 fish. The Taku saw a chinook escapement of 15,590 fish this year.

Chinook stocks have severely struggled across Southeast for several years and the small run forecasts are likely to again translate to broad chinook fishing closures across Southeast inside waters in spring and early summer, according to ADFG.


Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

12/02/2020 - 10:26am