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Bristol Bay's sockeye runs are expected to be strong, but nothing like last year

Alex Hager
Drift boats in the Nushagak District in 2019

Bristol Bay should see relatively strong sockeye runs this summer, though they’re not expected to be near last year’s record-breaking run and harvest.

Around 50 million sockeye are forecasted to return to the bay, according to the state’s forecast for the 2023 fishing season. The total escapement is projected to reach 13 million with around 37 million fish available to harvest.

That’s a good deal lower than last year, and it’s also lower than the average over the last 10 years. But looking a little further back, this summer's run is still expected to be 40% above the bay’s long-term average.

The University of Washington produced its own forecast for Bristol Bay's 2023 season

The strength of the salmon returns varies across river systems, and the Nushagak District, on the west side of the bay, has seen some of the biggest sockeye runs and highest harvests in recent years.

“I think the reason why we're getting these big runs in the Nushagak is because the warmer winters allow for a longer growing season," said Tim Sands, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s management biologist for the area, at a recent presentation in Dillingham. "So there's just that extra growing period where there's more food for them to eat. And they get a little bit bigger. And as they're bigger going out to the ocean. They're more competitive and they survive at a little higher rate.”

In the 2023 commercial fishing outlook, the department also raised concerns about fishermen under-reporting of king salmon harvests and said tenders should expect to be boarded and checked for undocumented king salmon.

The full presentation is available at the UAF Bristol Bay website.

Here's a rundown of this summer’s forecasts and regulations by district.


The Nushagak District is forecast to see 16.3 million sockeye this season, with the run almost evenly split between fish that spend two and three years in the ocean. The Wood River’s forecast is 8 million sockeye, the Nushagak’s is 7 million and the Igushik is set to see almost 2 million.

Low king salmon runs up the Nushagak River pushed the Department of Fish and Game to designate them a stock of concern last fall.

In an effort to conserve king salmon, the Board of Fisheries adopted three triggers, only one of which the district needs to meet for the season to open.

The latest the district will open is June 28. But new, optimum escapement goals mean managers will likely manage the fishery more conservatively than in past seasons, because the regulations allow them to let more sockeye escape.

Sands said that the triggers tell the department when to start fishing, and the new escapement goals determine how hard they fish throughout the season and how many breaks they take in order to protect kings.

“My goal is going to be to try and keep the escapement on the Wood River below 3 million escaping on the Nushagak River below 2 million, and trying to get enough king and chum salmon up the Nushagak River so that we can start climbing out of this stock of concern hole we’re in,” he said.

The triggers to open fishing are as follows:

  • In the Nushagak River, once 420,000 sockeye, or 6% of the forecast, are projected past the sonar. 
  • In the Wood River, once 800,000 sockeye, or 10% of the forecast, are projected past the counting tower. 
  • If neither of these triggers are met, the season may open on June 28. 

Asked during the presentation how the department would project those runs, Sands said they were going to use as many sources as possible.
“Aerial survey is certainly included,” he said. “We're going to have test boats in the district – [Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute] is running that project – subsistence harvest. Whatever we can gather that will inform that decision, we'll use.”

The district's triggers delay commercial fishing in June. But the department said even after fishing is open managers will work to balance commercial fishing opportunity with escapement of kings, chum and sockeye throughout the season; set net fishermen should expect some closures into the second week of July, and drift openings will be timed to allow kings and chum to swim through the commercial district.

Chum runs up the Nushagak have also been extremely low; they haven’t met the escapement goal in the last three years. Sands said the department also considered recommending that species a stock of concern last fall but that ultimately they felt the chum didn’t qualify. However, Fish and Game is asking fishermen to avoid areas where they may catch higher numbers of kings and chum.

“If we don't make chum salmon escapement goal for the next three years, we will be talking about chum salmon stock of concern plan and that will be much more restrictive than what we're doing now for kings, because it'll mean that what we've done for kings has not worked to protect chums,” Sands said.

Other regulatory changes include increasing the distance from set nets to the shore along Ekuk beach.

“We're working on getting a map made with those new coordinates,” Sands said. “So the drifters will be able to find the coordinates into their plotters, and see where the furthest offshore the buoys can be. And then so that set netters can make adjustments as well.”

Once the coordinates are finalized they will be posted to the department website and on the district’s map.


Togiak is expected to see 680,000 sockeye, which is below average in recent years, but slightly above average in the long term. The available harvest will be almost 500,000 fish.

The transfer date for Togiak permits changedat the recent Board of Fisheries meeting. It used to be July 17. Now, permit holders who have fished elsewhere in the bay can’t fish in the Togiak District until the mid-point of the escapement goal has been reached. Those who started out fishing in Togiak can’t fish in any other district of the bay until that midpoint goal has been reached.

While the Nushagak is the only river in Bristol Bay that still has a king salmon escapement goal, the state’s outlook says Togiak’s king runs are also expected to be poor, following a trend over the past several years, and that fishermen should expect reductions to their weekly fishing schedule in the last two weeks of June in the Togiak River section.


The Naknek-Kvichak is expected to see 18 million sockeye this summer. The Kvichak River is forecasted to have a run of 8 million sockeye, the Naknek could see over 6 million and Alagnak forecast is set at 4 million.

It will have four day a week openers until June 23, after which the managers will schedule openers based on the sockeye run.

That district also faces new regulations this year. For one, people can now go online to get subsistence salmon permits for the Naknek River. Subsistence users can only fish with set gillnets in the special harvest areas of the Naknek, Alagnak and Wood Rivers.

The Board of Fisheries also approved a new subsection for the Naknek River special harvest area, which allows commercial fishing there when the Naknek River's escapement has passed the midpoint of the escapement goal range and is projected to exceed the upper-end goal. A boundary line coordinate for Kvichak and Naknek sections has been changed to align with the district like at Johnson Hill.


Egegik’s forecast is at 11 million sockeye, with over 9 million available to harvest. Almost half of the run is expected to be 1-3 fish, or salmon that spend one year in freshwater and three in the ocean.

Egegik’s season will start with fishing three days a week through June 16 to allow kings to escape, according to the outlook. After that the department will schedule additional fishing openers based on the strength of the sockeye run.


Ugashik District is expected to see around 3 million sockeye, bringing available harvest to 2.5 million. Almost half of that river’s run will be 1-2 fish. This summer, the late season schedule for Ugashik will be aligned with other districts on the fishery’s East Side.

KDLG’s Christina McDermott contributed reporting to this story. 

Get in touch with the author at or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.