Happy New Year! From education to erosion, fish to fires, Bristol Bay had a remarkable 2019.
Over the course of a year, the seasons demand news of fishing and hunting, education and elections. Amidst that annual rhythm, in 2019 several stories stood out in particular.
This summer the sockeye salmon fishery hauled in 43 million fish – its second-largest harvest on record. The total run of 56.5 million fish was the sixth largest on record. The preliminary exvessel price of $306.5 million for the 2019 fishery was the highest ever.
The fleet’s enormous catch was harvested during one of the hottest, driest summers ever in Bristol Bay. King Salmon and Iliamna hit record-high temperatures in July. In some rivers, the run was halted by thermal barriers – pockets of water that were too warm for the salmon to swim through.
All districts met or exceeded their escapement by the end of the season. Nushagak had a stellar year, with an inshore run close to 18 million sockeye and a harvest of 14.7 million. Egegik had the third-largest harvest in the history of the district. And Togiak had its biggest harvest on record, bringing in more than one million fish. The Naknek-Kvichak district exceeded its forecast as well. But the Kvichak River was slow in meeting its escapement. Ugashik was also slow, and it was the only district that came in below forecast. Once the weather cooled down in the second half of July, the run picked up dramatically.
The summer’s heat created ideal conditions for wildfire, and in August fire ravaged the tundra around much of the region. A blaze spread over hundreds of acres around Levelock, threatening the village and airstrip. Port Heiden volunteers beat back a wildfire about 10 miles from the village. There were also fires in the tundra around the Bristol Bay Borough, though no structures were threatened.
In April, the Togiak Herring fishery had its earliest ever opener, and seiners caught a record 23,000 tons. But profits did not match the volume, as the market for sac roe herring is in decline due to shrinking demand in Japan, the fishery’s only market. Togiak sac roe herring sold at just $75 per ton compared to prices that reached around $1,000 in the 1990s.
Municipal elections were held in November. Voters in the Bristol Bay Borough passed a 1.5% tax on processed fish. The borough plans to put the proceeds towards updates to the sewer system, which is outdated and strained during the summer months. In a narrow race for a seat on the borough assembly, incumbent Pete Caruso and candidate Gene Sanderson were separated by only two votes. The borough held a recount, and Caruso won, putting him in the assembly for another three years.
In January, high levels of the manmade chemicals PFAS were found in the water of a popular well at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church. Firefighting foam had been used in annual testing at the Dillingham airport since the 1970s, and that foam had contaminated the water, which tested three times higher than the state’s safety limit. Dillingham was the first community in Bristol Bay to test positive for PFAS. It was followed a few weeks later by a well in King Salmon. The state has since tested wells around those airports and held public meetings on health and safety when dealing with PFAS chemicals.
Two notable hydroelectric projects moved forward this year in Bristol Bay. The village of Igiugig launched a first-of-its-kind hydroelectric generator in July for a trial year. Across the region, at Nuyakuk Falls, Nushagak Cooperative started the permitting process to explore its own hydroelectric project, generating controversy over its proposed location on a major salmon river in a state park.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced this summer that the Mulchatna caribou herd now numbers at approximately 13,500 animals – half of what it was when the last state surveys were taken three years ago. That decline prompted state and federal agencies to place restrictions on harvest. The Federal Subsistence Board will close the hunt on federal public lands throughout the range of the herd beginning December 31, 2019.
Environmental phenomena continue to change the region’s coastline. After years of anticipation, Port Heiden’s Goldfish Lake breached in November. Drastic erosion from high tides and large storms also continues to spur discussion about what communities should do to protect infrastructure near the shore. Dillingham is considering plants to address the eroding bank by the town’s sewage lagoon.
Throughout the year, the proposed Pebble Mine continued to advance through the federal permitting process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its draft environmental impact statement of Pebble’s federal permit application in February.
In March, the Army Corps held public hearings on the draft in communities around the region. Local residents expressed concerns over the scope of the draft and impacts of the project itself on cultural and environmental resources. Others expressed support for the mine as a potential for more local jobs. The Environmental Protection Agency, among other state and federal agencies, criticized the draft. But in July, the EPA withdrew proposed restrictions on the Pebble project, clearing a potential hurdle to the mine’s development.
The public comment period for the draft EIS closed on July 1, and the Army Corps expects to release the final environmental impact statement in the summer of 2020.