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For a second year, sockeye season will open later to protect Nushagak kings

A male chinook salmon
A male chinook salmon

For the second year in a row, commercial sockeye fishing will open later in the Nushagak District than in past years. The goal is to give struggling king salmon more time to swim upstream.

This year, like last year, there are three possible triggers for the start of the season. The latest is next Friday, June 28. But Area Management Biologist Tim Sands expects that fishing will start sooner.

In the Nushagak District, the king, or chinook, salmon run is in decline: the run has now come in below its minimum escapement goal every year for the past five years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has designated triggers to meet before commercial fishing opens.

“So there's three different triggers, any one of which will allow us to start fishing,” said Tim Sands, area management biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. “One is projecting 210,000 sockeye salmon past the Nushagak sonar. Another one is projecting 800,000 sockeye salmon past the Wood River tower. And the last one is June 28 at 9 a.m.”

King salmon populations are in decline around Alaska. Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are looking into the role of bycatch in the declines. Their research also shows that climate change is likely contributing. Warmer waters can force salmon to spend more energy migrating; they can also lower food quality so kings don’t get the vitamins they need to thrive.

“If it was just Nushagak district or Nushagak river king salmon, then we could say that it was a local problem, but because it is coast wide, it points much more to some issues in the ocean,” Sands said.

Statewide, 18 King salmon runs have been designated stocks of concern, including in the Nushagak. Chignik River and Kenai River runs were also added in 2023.

Last year, the Alaska Board of Fisheries delayed the commercial sockeye season for the Nushagak district to help more kings escape up the Nushagak and Wood rivers. Escapement numbers were still lower than hoped, but Sands says that the delay in fishing helped.

“We still did not meet the king salmon escapement goal. But under the previous regulations, we would have started fishing on June 23 last year, and we didn't start fishing till the evening of June 25 and in that time, we had over 10,000 king salmon escape,” Sands said.

This year is the second year of the Nushagak King Salmon Action Plan to promote more chinook returning. June 28 is the latest the season could start. But Sands says he expects commercial fishing to start sooner, based on sockeye escapement numbers for either the Wood or Nushagak rivers.

“My best guess is June 26. Last year, my best guess was June 26 and it was the evening of June 25,” Sands said.

The Nushagak King Salmon Action Plan also sets bag limits for sport fishing. It does not close subsistence fishing. The hope is that letting more sockeye escape at the beginning of the season will also let more kings to escape with them.

The plan also aims to help more kings escape in the middle of the season by directing Sands to shorten commercial sockeye openers as needed.

Sands is aware of the economic impact for harvesters, but the department is focused on conservation for future runs. “So obviously there were less sockeye harvested, but we can't really say of the sockeye above the normal escapement goals that that got by how many of those would we have caught,” he said.

Sands says to let more kings through, the plan adds a new optimum escapement goal for sockeye that is higher than previous goals.

The board implemented optimum escapement goals that basically direct me as the manager, to exceed the regular escapement goal so that we're diminishing the conflict between trying to achieve the king salmon escapement goal without going over the sockeye salmon escapement goal,” he said.

Last year, sockeye escapement came in between the regular and optimum escapement goals set by the Board. Kings came in below their escapement goal, but still above their average for the last 20 years.

Almost a quarter of the kings that escaped did so before commercial sockeye fishing started. “I think we can directly point to the regulations and say, yes, it made a difference. We saved some fraction of that 10,000 kings that we would have been fishing on, and we didn't,” Sands said.

To Sands and state managers, delaying the commercial fishing start date is a promising way to help more kings return and increase future runs. The Board of Fisheries is set to review the success of the plan in January 2026.

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Meg Duff is a fisheries reporter for KDLG's Bristol Bay Fisheries Report. She is also a freelance journalist, writing and making audio stories for publications like Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, Outside, Slate and Yale Climate Connections. Meg has a master's in journalism from New York University.