“Cautious optimism” ahead of Bristol Bay’s projected 41.5 million sockeye run in 2017

May 30, 2017

Run size, which should allow a harvest of over 27 million, is about on average for the past ten years. A lower harvest here and elsewhere may translate to a higher value for the catch. 

Empty freezer container vans make their way into Nushagak Bay early on May 30. More of Bristol Bay's harvest is going out frozen rather than canned now, with Peter Pan in Dillingham saying for the first time in the plant's history they won't be operating the cannery this year.
Credit Sarah Grace Durrance

Bristol Bay had back to back record breaking sockeye runs in 2015 and 2016. This year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a closer-to-normal return for the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. ADF&G’s 2017 commercial salmon fishery outlook estimates a total of more than 41 million sockeye in the bay. Managers are hoping to see about 12.5 million escape up area rivers to spawn, leaving just over 29 million for the commercial harvest if the forecast is accurate.

Though no two years are the same, and it’s difficult to call one run normal in comparison to another, the expectations for 2017 are almost identical to the total average from the last ten years in the bay.

The Bristol Bay run will likely continue to supply the lion’s share of wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon to the market, as the forecast is down statewide. The Upper Cook Inlet, for example, anticipates only about 4 million fish—well below its ten year average. A decline in state sockeye totals could mean an increase in the price. Reports suggest the world salmon market successfully absorbed the two record years, and could be left wanting if the returns for 2017 are as predicted.

“With Bristol Bay down, I think that’s equating to about a 23 percent decline in the Alaska sockeye forecast,” Andy Wink, a senior seafood analyst for the McDowell Group, told KDLG news. “I think the expectation is that price will probably go up somewhat to offset that,” he said.

Of course, salmon runs are historically difficult to predict. The biologists who put data together for the outlook have miscalculated the size of the run by a yearly average of 10 percent since 2001.

ADF&G releases the annual forecast as a guideline to fisherman and processors, but admits the statistics are not an exact science.

“For the whole of Bristol Bay we’ve been fairly close; if you look at it by river system it hasn’t necessarily been as close. Some are below and some are above, but it averages out to pretty close,” said ADF&G’s Tim Sands, the area management biologist for the west side of Bristol Bay.

Three tenders in Naknek waiting for the fishery. Pictured here at low tide Saturday.
Credit KDLG

Bristol Bay is divided into five districts: 8.62 million sockeye are estimated for the Nushagak District run, Naknek-Kvichak is expected to see more than 16 million, Egegik’s forecast is 10.65 million, Ugashik’s is 5.46 and Togiak 0.66. These ADF&G predictions run very near the average for each district, respectively, with no notable disparity between projected totals and mean averages. This is a positive for the continued sustainability of the run if it holds true to the numbers—as all systems are expected to reach escapement goals.

“The forecast for the Nushagak is for a little bit over 6 million harvest, which is just above average. At this point that is all we know,” said Sands of the district he manages. Sands will begin tracking the run using the Port Moller test fishery, three counting towers, the Nushagak sonar, aerial surveys, and catch reports starting in early June.

Right now he is not planning on any targeted king salmon openings, which occasionally are offered in the Nushagak District. Nor is he yet planning for any king salmon conservation measures, like mesh size restrictions. The state fisheries biologists assigned to the Nushagak River jurisdiction feel the Chinook return will be strong again this year, but there is no formal forecast produced. Other possible mid-season changes may include the opening of the Wood River Special Harvest Area to protect Nushagak kings or sockeye, and altering the tide cycle the drift fleet is allowed to fish.

Drift boats in Naknek. Saturday, May 27, 2017.
Credit Sarah Grace Durrance

The ADF&G forecast estimates a high number of average sized fish to be swimming in the average sized run. The data shows more than 60 percent of the run to be comprised of five year old fish—which tend to be middleweights as far as sockeye go. However, the age class forecast also predicts a large majority of those five year fish will have spent most of their lives in the ocean, which could help pack on a few ounces to the overall average weight of the run.

“On a typical year, a two ocean fish weighs about five pounds, and a three ocean fish weighs about seven pounds,” said Icicle Seafoods fleet manager Warner Lew.

Lew is a longtime expert on the Bristol Bay run. He says there are many factors to consider when predicting a salmon run, which make it difficult to compare one year’s run side by side with another’s. This includes harsh weather conditions when smelt begin swimming for the ocean in the spring, and the rate at which ice melts in the winter.

“There’s a couple of wild cards for this year,” he said. “One of the unusual things about last year was the number of jacks that came in, especially in the Wood River and the Egegik River—those numbers were off the charts,” he said. Jacks are precocious young sockeye that swim with larger fish, and are often considered a good sign for the following year. “No one knows how good an indicator this is for this year’s run,” said Lew.

Another wild card for the fleet and industry is timing. Based on historical averages, Bristol Bay’s run was late to show the last two years, especially in Naknek-Kvichak. Erratic timing strains the industry’s ability to catch and process millions of salmon in a short window of time.

“If that run shows up fairly well distributed, throughout a time stratum that allows processors and fisherman to catch the fish in an orderly fashion, it allows processors to put that product into product forms that make the most money—that’s all great,” said BBEDC president and CEO Norman Van Vactor, another expert with decades of experience in the industry. “But as we know, Mother Nature doesn’t necessarily play by our wishes and our hopes.”

Like the price paid to fishermen, no one is anxious to weigh in on the timing of this year’s run, though after the end of El Nino at least the Togiak herring returned to something more akin to normal.

Overall, there is a general sentiment of optimism heading into another season at the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. The run is projected to be strong, but manageable, the price may trend up, more fisherman are chilling their catch, and timely industry contributions have closed the state budget gap funding the fishery. But the hopefulness is accompanied with the usual, and reasonable, feelings of uncertainty. The ADF&G forecast has been off by as much as 44 percent in recent years. There are plenty of variables that can make for a tough to catch, tough to process, or tough to sell season, which make Bristol Bay the exciting and dynamic fishery that draws participation and interest from all over the world.

“Yes, cautious optimism,” said Tom Whinihan, Peter Pans Seafoods' Bristol Bay fleet manager. 

Reach KDLG fisheries reporter Nick Ciolino at fish@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281