In the penultimate episode of the Fisheries Report, we look at the commercial fishery in the year when a record 65 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay, and hear from managers, fishermen and stakeholders who partook in this astounding season.
Bristol Bay’s major processors are paying a $1.25 base price for sockeye
Bristol Bay’s major processors will pay $1.25 per pound of sockeye this season.
The 2021 price is up almost 80% from last year's $0.70 per pound, and it is on par with the price for 2018.
This season was the first time in over two decades that a processor told its fishermen what they would make before fishing started.
Peter Pan Seafoods announced its base price on June 19, so fishermen knew that price before they went out on the water. Some said that reduced the stress of the season, because they knew their baseline. The company’s Bristol Bay manager said it also allowed them to better plan for the season.
But $1.10 was just the beginning.
OBI Seafoods announced a base price of $1.25 in mid-July. Peter Pan matched that price.
Intrafish reported that Silver Bay Seafoods and North Pacific also posted base prices of $1.25 per pound for sockeye.
Video courtesy of James Radon.
OBI will include a $0.15 late-season bonus for boats that continue to fish after July 23. That increase will not go into effect until after that date.
Peter Pan will pay an additional $0.10 for fall fish after July 18, and $0.30-worth of quality bonuses.
Bristol Bay saw it’s largest run on record in 2021. As of July 22, 64.2 million sockeye have returned to the bay. As salmon swim upriver to return to their spawning grounds, biologists track numbers to balance conservation with commercial fishing. But how are those fish counted? KDLG’s Stephanie Maltarich spent an afternoon with a few of the dedicated individuals who stand watch 24 hours a day.
A huge year for the Nushagak
Bristol Bay’s record 2021 sockeye season is nearing its end. With over 65 million salmon through Bristol Bay waters to date, the region is a beacon of hope among the poor returns to other areas in Alaska.
Westside Area Management Biologist Tim Sands said it’s proof of Fish and Game’s efforts toward sustainable commercial harvest.
“You don’t have record runs on an exploited stock after 100 years of exploitation unless the management is sustainable,” he said.
Sands said while the record sockeye run demonstrates the efficacy of the department’s efforts, the lower returns of Nushagak chums and Chinook are still a point of concern.
“There’s still a lot of stuff beyond our control and you can see that in our chum run here in the Nushagak being low for two years, and our king run not being what it should be," he said. "But if we continue on and take the necessary steps to get the minimum escapement at least, then those runs will bounce back when those other conditions change in the ocean.”
Sands said some of his highest points of concern in the ocean are acidification, pollution, and the blob, a marine heat wave off the coast of North America. Some scientists have suggested that the blob is one of the causes of poor returns to the Chignik and Copper rivers. Sands said it’s important to acknowledge human impacts and recognize our roles in ecosystems.
“There’s all kinds of different things that can happen and I guess we as humans need to try and keep that in mind and not throw the trash on the ground, not dump the oil on the ground," he said. "Put it away and dispose of it properly and do our little part to maintain the ecosystem because it’s ultimately what makes this place special.”
Sands said Bristol Bay’s sockeye run is proof that sustainable fisheries are possible - despite outcry from documentarians and industry critics.
Seaspiracy is a 2021 Netflix documentary on commercial fisheries that claims there is no such thing as sustainable fishing. The film’s critics have accused it of misleading statements and a failure to acknowledge areas with sustainable harvests.
“With all the Seaspiracy and other news in the world talking about how fisheries aren’t sustainable, it’s nice to be able to point to one that is definitively sustainable,” he said.
The latest run summary from Fish and Game was for July 22. The total harvest for the Nushagak District was 17.5 million fish. The total run for the district was over 27 million – the second highest on record. Bristol Bay’s total harvest was 39.2 million fish.
Managers say sonar and apportionment counts may have underestimated Chinook run up the Nushagak
The Nushagak River is the only one in the region where they use sonar -- instead of a tower -- to count salmon escapement. That’s due to the river’s murky water, and its width in areas where escapement counts would be useful.
Jordan Head is the assistant area management biologist for the West Side of Bristol Bay and runs the drift gillnet apportionment for the Nushagak River. He said the issues with the sonar, and the apportionment counts, may have underestimated the Nushagak’s Chinook run.
“When we go out to do our drift gillnet apportionment, you put a net in the water and with half a million sockeye swimming in the river a day, you put a net in the water and it’s full of sockeye within the first 20-30 seconds and then fish start to avoid the net and we don’t really have an opportunity to catch the kings,” he said.
Other factors, like warmer waters, likely pushed Chinook toward the bottom of rivers and away from the sonar counter and the apportionment drift nets.
Head said that sport fishing reports also indicated that more fish made it up the river than the apportionment counts estimated.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, there was one day where we counted like 80 fish in the sonar and we got reports of more fish, almost the same amount of fish being caught in the sport fishery,” he said.
Head said that while the Chinook runs are worrying, the run likely reached its lower-end escapement goal -- despite what their estimates for the season suggest.
“We’re not trying to say this is by all counts a stellar, huge, king run," he said. "I think we all know that it’s not – but when you look at the project and all the context around it and all the information we have coming in, we believe the number count is better than what the sonar count is saying.”
Fish and Game will conduct aerial surveys over the next month in an effort to verify the estimates and supplement this season’s preliminary escapement counts.
More fishing for Togiak, as the run hits the middle of its escapement goal range
Togiak’s commercial season was extended Wednesday. It's managed on a weekly schedule, and managers can add up to 48 hours to the schedule or reduce fishing time, depending on escapement.
Throughout the run, assistant manager Jordan Head said Togiak's escapement has tracked ahead of its in-season goals. The river is right in the middle of the escapement range of 120,000 - 270,000, and Head said managers felt the additional fishing time was merited.
The Togiak River section will be extended for the maximum 48-hours until 9 a.m. on Sunday, and the regular weekly schedule will continue on Monday at 9 a.m.
The fleet there has harvested half a million fish so far, and escapement is at 180,000. The total run up the Togiak River is 680,000. Those numbers are a bit below the forecasted run of 800,000 fish.
Rough weather and tough fishing in the Naknek-Kvichak
The Naknek-Kvichak’s 2021 run came in above forecast. The total run is over 19 million sockeye -- the catch is almost 9 million and escapement across the district is just over 10 million.
Fishing in the Naknek-Kvichak was a bit tough this summer. Area Management Biologist Travis Elison said the waves and wind beat around the fishermen.
Two southeast storms hit the district early in the season, which held fish off the district. When the run did come in, the southeast winds kept them off the east side beach, where most set netters fish. And, Elison said, it also pushed them into deeper water, so the drifters couldn’t catch them as easily.
“It really affected fish movement," he said. "When they came in we were seeing southeast winds on the first couple pulses of fish. And I think that sets up their migration pattern to be more off-shore and out in the middle. And those things really make it tough.”
That also meant the district’s escapement was relatively steady throughout the season -- even with liberal fishing time. Managers opened up the full district -- including the Kvichak section around July 7.
“I think the set netters fished every tide from June 29 on, and the drifters also fished every tide, and we were able to do some long 18, 19-hour periods,” he explained.
Elison said that compared to the total run, the district’s harvest was a bit low; a lot of effort in the early season was in the Nushagak.
“So that kept our boat counts pretty low," he said. "It slowly climbed starting around that second week of July. And we ended with about 530 boats around the end of the registration period.”
The Naknek River came in a bit under forecast, while the Kvichak and Alagnak Rivers returned over forecast.
“The Alagnak was really a great run," Elison said. "Total run is over six million. Escapement’s at 3.2 million right now -- we’ve got a couple more days of counting left there.
Elison said the 2-ocean fish were dominant. But there was also a good amount of 3-ocean fish -- which came from the 2015 brood year, which saw large escapements to the Kvichak and Alagnak.
Ugashik's busy season
Ugashik’s run came in slightly above forecast.
Aaron Tiernan, the area management biologist for Ugashik and Egegik, said managers were cautious at the start of the season -- the fleet fished about every other day. That changed after the first week of July.
“We had a big push into the district, and things went from there and fishing ramped up and began fairly consistent from there on out,” he said.
Tiernan said the run timing was just about average. But the push of fish was compressed.
“Those fish did hold for a little bit. And we were taking little bites out of them. And then when they all moved in, they all moved in at once," he said. "I did hear reports of people estimating there were 2, 3, 4 million fish all pushed in, all at one time into that smaller district. It sounded like it was pretty entertaining to be there when those fish all moved in.”
Ugashik fisherman thankful for this year’s harvest
Fishermen in the Ugashik District were busy this summer. After a push of fish in early July, fishermen harvested over 600,000 fish a day for three days in a row.
Jeremy Rubingh returned for his seventh season on the F/V Eva. We caught up with him a couple weeks ago. Like every year, he’s grateful for the opportunity to fish in the Ugashik.
“Ugashik has been great, it’s been a strong steady run, and just big beautiful fish, and every single year it’s an honor to be a part of in such an amazing thing, you get reminded of the volume of fish and how special this is in the world,” he said.
Ugashik’s total run is currently at around 7.7 million. That’s more than a million fish over the pre-season forecast. Harvest is just under 6 million, and its escapement is just under 3 million.
“There’s different management goals from year to year, the run is right at its forecast if not right at it, a little early this year. I think we are starting to see a typical end of the run, possibly a strong tail, but things are tapering off.”
In addition to fish swarming the Ugashik, the number of boats has also increased.
“In the last two or three days, you kind of lose track of time," he said. "Certainly a lot of boats have poured in, and I think with the transfer being waived in a few days you’ll see people leaving people going in the whole gambit you know?”
Rubingh said Ugashik can be a challenging place to fish because of its remote location. When we talked to Rubingh earlier this month, he was happy everyone in the district was doing well.
He was also thankful for another special perk this year: The ability to raft up and meet with friends on the water, which was a tradition he missed last summer during the pandemic.
Egegik's run levels out below forecast
Egegik’s run, meanwhile, were both lower than expected -- the total run is just under 10 million, with escapement around 1.8 million and harvest a bit under 8 million.
“Coming into the season, I think a lot of folks had high hopes for that district," Tiernan said. "Once it kind of shook out through the season, it wasn’t too, too bad of a year. "But it definitely looks like it’s kind of going to level off a little under-forecast for the season.”
Tiernan says this year, Egegik’s run seemed more oriented toward the deeper channels, and away from the beach.
Chignik’s late run on track to meet its minimum escapement goal
The Chignik area’s late sockeye run is on track to meet its escapement goals this year. It has hit every escapement mark so far this season, while the early run continues to flounder at only two-thirds of its lower end escapement goal.
For the past three years, neither run has hit the lower ends of their escapement goals. This is the fourth year in a row the early run has failed to make escapement. As of July 27, only 261,157 early run sockeye had passed the weir, out of its lower end escapement goal of 350,000 salmon.
The 2021 late run, meanwhile, is at 156,218 sockeye, well above the July 25 goal of 110,000 fish.
“Counts have been consistently good compared to historical numbers for this time of year, and right now the late run appears to be on track to meet the season ending escapement goal of 220,000 – 400,000 sockeye salmon,” Area Management Biologist Reid Johnson said in an email.
During the season, Fish and Game bases the early and late run counts on the previous 10 years of genetic information. After the season, it adjusts those numbers with information from genetic samples taken during the season.
While this year’s late run has met its goals so far, it has trended along the lower end of its interim escapement objectives.
The Chignik River Weir will continue to count fish until August 17.
Contact the fish team at email@example.com or 907-842-2200.