Bristol Bay Sockeye: A Run on the Brink?

Alaska’s largest sockeye fishery is predicted to have a near record return this summer, but so far the reds have only trickled into Bristol Bay’s rivers.

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Veronica Elford helps set a net in Naknek Monday, where the fishing was slow. Credit Hannah Colton
Veronica Elford helps set a net in Naknek Monday, where the fishing was slow.
Credit Hannah Colton

Through Tuesday, 3.4 million sockeye have been harvested, and the total run including escapement is 5.3 million fish. Given that Fish and Game’s preseason estimates suggested 54 million sockeye would return, with 38 million available for harvest, there was more head scratching than fish picking happening as June turned into July.

There are three questions on the mind of most: Are all those fish going to show up, if so, when, and will they hit all at once?

KDLG, Bristol Bay’s public (and often only) radio station, produces a nightly newscast dedicated to the fishery. Daily, we speak with Fish and Game managers, researchers from the University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institute, and analysts at the Port Moller Test Fishery.

The consensus a week ago was, “The fish should be here any day now.”

The closest this fishery has to a crystal ball is the Port Moller Test Fishery, which catches sockeye at a series of stations spread offshore from Port Moller. Most of the sockeye caught there are bound for Bristol Bay’s districts, and those that aren’t caught will arrive in 2-11 days. Between genetic sampling of the catch and some study of past data, the timing and size of the run comes into view.

“I think it’s going to come in really strong, and late,” said F/V Crimson Hunter skipper Braden Williams, speaking about the run to the Naknek-Kvichak District he fishes. His first two fishing periods had not been very profitable. Credit Hannah Colton
“I think it’s going to come in really strong, and late,” said F/V Crimson Hunter skipper Braden Williams, speaking about the run to the Naknek-Kvichak District he fishes. His first two fishing periods had not been very profitable.
Credit Hannah Colton

Provided, that is, some sockeye start to show up inshore, either harvested by the fleet or counted as escapement up area rivers. The research team needs the “catch and escapement” data to reference back to their test fishery numbers. Port Moller’s catches picked up by June 17, but a week passed and few sockeye arrived inshore.

The suspicion around the Bay for a week has been that the sockeye are balling up between Port Moller and the districts, maybe waiting for a weather change to make a big push upstream. Fishermen and processors worry about a “wall of fish” that will be too large to catch or process.

Or the preseason run forecast could be off, though no one has put up that white flag yet.

“Fish being late is the first part of them not showing up,” said F/V Stevie K skipper Buck Gibbons a week ago. Gibbons reiterated that comment Wednesday night, after a slow harvest and another day of down time in Naknek-Kvichak.

Fish and Game and PMTF are leery of making in-season predictions. Some tell us they want to avoid the “Greenspan effect,” named former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, whose words, it is said, could move markets. But by Wednesday evening, Port Moller and Fish and Game were hinting at problems.

“The run seems to be late if it is to break 30 million, and several days late for it come in at the preseason forecast,” wrote PMTF’s data analyst Scott Raborn.

“It certainly has the feeling of being potentially slightly smaller than forecast,” said Fish and Game Commercial FisheriesDirector Jeff Regnart, who was in Dillingham Wednesday. He added that the sockeye are smaller than expected, and the run seems late, too.

Right now, the Naknek-Kvichak district is lagging the furthest behind. After a long and at times impatient period of waiting, the first open periods offered the eager fleet little harvest.

“So far I haven’t seen a fish in my net yet,” Pederson Point set netter Sylvia Elford told KDLG about an hour into Monday’s opener. The day before her site had delivered only 140 pounds.

“Out of the 20 days we’ve been here, we’ve bought fish twice,” said Rob Trumble, skipper of the fishing tender Denali. “We have 11,000 pounds packed. It’s been the most different year ever.”

Fish and Game’s preseason forecast predicted 28.8 million sockeye returning to Naknek-Kvichak, with 18 million available for harvest. Through Tuesday, only 834,000 sockeye had been accounted for.

“It’s been really frustrating,” said Gabe Dunham aboard the F/V Oracle in Naknek Wednesday evening. His boat has been in the water since June 18. “This down time, best I can say for it, is that it’s been good for shoreside businesses.”

Workers at Nakeen Homepack in Naknek got a batch of reds to process Sunday. Credit Hannah Colton
Workers at Nakeen Homepack in Naknek got a batch of reds to process Sunday.
Credit Hannah Colton

Fishermen are not leaving the district, despite the wait. In fact, more boats and more permits are registered to fish Naknek-Kvichak than any other district, and more are added every day.

That’s because fishermen know Bristol Bay’s run size and timing changes every year. They like to throw jabs at the biologists and gripe about their processors, but they also know that rolling with the punches of the world’s greatest sockeye run is part of the job, and part of the fun. “That’s why it’s called fishing, not catching,” a reporter will hear a hundred times a season.

“The last couple of years have been one way, and this year has definitely shaped up to be a different way,” said Lange Solberg on the F/V Opie II.

Solberg was frustrated when he spoke with us Wednesday evening. But he also counts himself among the optimists who say that a big push, the “wall of fish,” will be here soon.

“Hopefully by July 4 we’ll be up to our eyeballs in fish,” he said.

Dave Bendinger is the News Director at KDLG. Hannah Colton and Molly Dischnercontributed to this story.