There is really only one thing to talk about in Chignik Bay these days: Where are the sockeye?
“Shock is pretty much the guaranteed feeling of most people as kinda everybody walking around dazed,” said Ben Allen, a local fisherman.
Like many communities around the Gulf of Alaska, villages near the Chignik River are struggling with weak sockeye runs. This summer’s Chignik return is its lowest recorded in 50 years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently set a commercial salmon opener for later this week, but it will target pink and chum salmon. ADF&G officials say the amount of sockeye returning to the region is still far under its escapement goal for the Chignik River, so it is still uncertain whether the region will see a commercial sockeye harvest this summer.
Many residents are even forgoing subsistence fishing voluntarily to try and get every salmon they can up the Chignik River.
Luckily there are two sockeye runs annually, so people hope the later run will be a strong one, but Allen said it’s hard to stay optimistic.
“The ebb and flow of fishing does happen and you know you just kinda hope the next run or the next year is going to be something worth going after. But there’s not a lot of hope involved,” said Allen.
Chignik Bay is small, with fewer than 100 year-round residents. Commercial fishing for sockeye is the main source of income for individuals and revenue for the city through the raw fish tax.
The commercial fishery in the Chignik region has been declining for years and the failure of this run is making people wonder what the future holds. Allen is unsure if being a fisherman in Chignik is sustainable.
He said, “honestly, we don’t know if we’re going to be doing this in 5 years, 10 years.”
Allen is not alone. Billy Anderson bought into the fishery with the idea that he would pass on the family business when he retired.
“When I bought the boat and permit I didn’t think it was going to be this much of a struggle to get things going and try to hand it down to my son,” Anderson said. “He’s young, and I don’t want to hand him a big bill, that’s for sure. I wanted him to have heydays too like I had heydays when I was fishing.”
Anderson is from Chignik Bay and has been a commercial fisherman for most of his life. He said he has never experienced a worse salmon season, a sentiment echoed throughout the community.
Fishermen are not the only ones concerned about this year’s run. State biologists are, as well.
“We’re worried we may not even meet the minimum escapement goals for the year,” said Dawn Wilson of ADF&G.
Only 172,000 sockeye have reached the Chignik River. ADF&G’s minimum escapement goal for the month of June was about 300,000. It is too early to know what caused the region’s early sockeye run to fail, but there is a hypothesis.
Wilson explained, “It’s very likely that it’s related to the warming waters in the Gulf of Alaska.”
A body of unusually warm water settled in the gulf a few years ago, and is often called “the blob.” It has since moved out of the gulf, but it may have caused some of the area’s sockeye stocks to crash.
Even if the run failure is due to environmental factors, many local fishermen are still frustrated with regional management of fisheries. Axel Kopun is among them.
He said, “yeah, bad runs happen, but when you have a bunch of fish being intercepted just a few miles below you and you are sitting on the beach and you don’t even get to do subsistence, it’s hard to take.”
Kopun’s the president of the Chignik Seiners Association. He said fisheries along the Alaska Peninsula catch salmon from mixed stocks that include Chignik sockeye and some sections have continued to fish even though Chignik’s first run failed. Local fishermen want that to change.
“We’re not here just to get our escapement. Yeah, we want our escapement, but we need to catch fish and make money. We’re people here too and we actually need enough fish to make a living,” Kopun said.
It is hard to say how many fish caught along the peninsula are destined for Chignik, according to ADF&G. But the department restricted the South Unimak and Shumagin Islands June Fisheries for the first time, in an effort ot boost Chignik’s escapement.
Fishermen in Chignik do not think these restrictions are enough. They are petitioning the Alaska Board of Fisheries to change the way some sections along the peninsula are managed to protect Chignik’s sockeye resource.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries will consider Chignik’s request at a July 17 emergency meeting.The five Alaska Native tribes from the Chignik region are also reaching out to Governor Bill Walker to see if there’s any aid the state can offer.
Even with these efforts, fishermen like Dale Carson are losing hope that they can salvage this season.
“As a fisherman, you’re always thinking ‘okay, well next week, next week, or…next tide.’ But we’re starting to run out of the next tides or the next weeks here pretty quick,” Carson said.
All people can do now is wait and see how Chignik’s late sockeye run turns out.