Wood River towers: where sockeye salmon are counted

Commercial salmon fishing in Alaska is closely regulated, with the Department of Fish and Game opening and closing fisheries based on calculations of the fish population. But where do they get the information to make those calls?

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Isaac Reynolds is one of the three-person team operating the Wood River towers. He’s on the evening shift, but he volunteered to show me what he and his coworkers do once per hour, all day, every day – counting sockeye salmon as they make their way up to Lake Aleknagik.

“It’s actually pretty visible,” Reynolds said. “The only times that we ever have any trouble seeing them is if it’s really nasty out, and the wind’s just driving the water into a frenzy, but other than that. We also count the ones that go downstream, too, as a negative number.”

Reynolds, along with his teammates Monette Schwoerer and Alex Perrio, have been operating this tower during this year’s run. Each of them take an eight-hour shift, to keep the count running 24 hours. Only Sockeye are counted at Wood River, so you have to have a sharp eye to pick them out among the other fish in the river.

“So that one right there, with a silver belly? That’s a pink salmon,” Reynolds said. “We don’t count those, but it’s good to know that it’s a pink salmon ‘cause then you don’t count it as a red.” “I can tell there’s a difference but it kinda took a second of me looking. You’re just familiar enough with it that you can just pick them right out and not count them?” “Yeah, and I mean if you look down there there’s two more right there that are also pink salmon. Generally they’re smaller, they have a different tail shape, they have a different distinctive color in the water.”

The tower itself is bare scaffolding, with enough room to seat two on top. There’s one on each side of the river, and this one is about thirty feet tall, secured to the ground with ratcheted tie-down straps. The towers are simple, rugged, and could almost be mistaken for the ones used when the count started in 1956, were it not for a small solar assembly on the side that powers the night counting spotlights. There’s no ladder or stairs; to get up or down, you climb the outside of the tower – very carefully in my case.

“When I first got on top of that tower, I was like ‘oh boy’ “you know the sitting and standing doesn’t bother me so much, it’s the really the climbing that’s a little more hair-raising for me,” Reynolds said. “I mean it’s just, the tower’s shaky…”

The count is reported, from here and seven other towers in Bristol Bay, to Fish and Game along with survey data – sizes and sexes of fish that are recorded a few times a day. From there, the department makes its decisions on which areas to open or closed, based on escapement – a target number of fish that make it up the river to spawn. Reynolds said that he knows it’s painful for the fleet to be shut out of fisheries, but it’s important to preserve the future of the resource.

“I mean it’s not fun for everybody when we don’t get enough fish going up the river and we have to close off districts, but the truth is is if we didn’t do that, the entire surrounding region would be at so much of a greater disadvantage,” Reynolds said. “With the technology that we have for fishing nowadays, if we didn’t do something like this, this entire area would be fished out within four years. Absolutely it would be fished out within four years. And you’d still get a small run, but it wouldn’t be enough to support an industry, it wouldn’t be enough to support the ecosystem that you can find here today.”

Counting towers are expensive to operate, and state budget cuts have started to threaten their operation. As government faces lean times, private groups, from processors to native associations, have stepped in to keep them staffed and counting fish for the length of the run. These partnerships may become more and more necessary to keep the towers counting as they have for the past 60 years.

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