It's the final Fisheries Report of the 2021 season! In our last episode of this astounding season, we talk about subsistence and community. Thanks for tuning in!
A lifetime of fishing on the Wood River
Each summer, Alaskans take to the rivers, bays and oceans to subsistence fish. Some head out to set nets, others may use dip nets, all to stock up on enough fresh fish to last the winter. KDLG’s Stephanie Maltarich spent a day with one woman who has fished on a river near her home in Aleknagik since she was a child.
Rapid erosion threatens Ekuk's unique set net fishery
Each season, the small Bristol Bay fishing village of Ekuk swells with set net fishers ready to tap the bountiful run. Ekuk operates differently than other set net beaches in the bay; fishers rely on trucks to carry their catch to the local processor. As fishing in the village evolved with technology and product demands, so has the coastline. Rapid erosion threatens structures and setnet sites across the beach.
Changes to subsistence in Chignik Lagoon
The late sockeye run to the Chignik River may be on track to meet its low-end escapement, but the early run likely won’t hit the mark. The Chinook run hasn’t reached its escapement, either.
Commercial fishermen only had three openers to target pink and chum salmon in the inner bays. But lots of people spent the summer tendering in Bristol Bay.
The low salmon returns have also impacted subsistence fishing in the Chignik communities.
Al Anderson has lived in Chignik Lagoon all his life.
He said he and his family used to go out with a seiner to catch fish for smoking and canning; they could get 300 fish in one set. In the last few years, that hasn’t been the case.
“But there's so few fish, we go out with gillnets and fish a whole tide. My youngest daughter and I went out seven or eight times for 122 fish, with a gillnet. That shows you there isn’t much fish coming in,” he said.
In early July, the federal subsistence division restricted subsistence fishing for sockeye to federally qualified users only -- that is, residents of rural areas. That restriction continues through the end of the month.
State and federal managers also restricted Chinook fishing in the Chignik River in response to the failing returns. Anderson agrees with the closure.
“I normally get 20 or 25 kings, for my whole extended family, and we'll smoke them. But we're not going to get any of those this year," Anderson said. "They closed it down, and rightfully so. The kings have been depleted over the years.”
Anderson said fishing is central to people in the Chignik communities.
“Subsistence is very important -- like to my daughter, it's so important that she comes back every year to do it. And typically doesn't take her three weeks to get her subsistence fish, you know, a couple of days.” he laughed. “Of course, she comes back to visit to, so that's good,” he said.
Last summer, a commercial processor donated thousands of Bristol Bay sockeye to the Chigniks. Anderson says everyone was grateful to have fish to put away for the winter. But subsistence isn’t just about food.
“It's a mainstay of our diet, but also, you know, it brings our family together, you know. I like that about it. Because we all try to do it together. Just like today, my whole family is down on the beach, digging clams.”
Federal, state and Tribal entities plan to research dwindling Chignik Chinook run
Chinook runs have declined all around the state. One of the areas particularly hard-hit by the low returns is the Chignik River. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife plan to launch a three-year research project to find out why the Chignik River’s Chinook run has declined.
Fish and Game Management Biologist Reid Johnson said the holdup now is funding.
“It’s a partnership between the US fish and wildlife service as well as the Chignik inter-tribal coalition. There were a few different questions we’re going to try to answer with that project, but a proposal has been submitted and we won’t know about funding until next year."
If approved, Johnson said they will use the funds to pay staff and buy equipment, like video cameras. Johnson says their goal is to get an exact count of the chinook run that swims through the area.
“We’re looking to enumerate all the chinook that pass through the weir during the chinook salmon run. We’re going to be using video cameras and software to count all of those and those counts are going to be compared to the traditional method that we use here for enumerating Chinook salmon,” he said.
The current seasonal staff would extend their stay in the area to review video and software counts. That would help them verify and qualify their current methods of estimating fish in the river.
Those counts would be supplemented by subsistence surveys. They plan to hire someone from the Chignik Inter-tribal Coalition to survey beaches in the area to count the salmon harvest and the types of gear used.
Johnson said the hope is to address the lack of information in the area in order to better understand why the runs have been so small.
“Part of why we’re partnered with the feds on this project is the US Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t get a lot of subsistence information from the area," he said. "That’s what we’re hoping to address – getting more subsistence information from the people in the area as well as higher resolution of chinook salmon counts in the weir.”
The Chinook runs in the area have failed to meet the river’s minimum escapement goal of 1,300 fish almost every year since 2017. This year’s Chinook run is just over 1,000.
Coffee with Kenzie
It’s the last Coffee with Kenzie of the season! For the last episode, we’re going to take a look at Kenzie’s conversation with William Regan, better known as Sonny. Sonny is a lifelong resident of the Bristol Bay region, and is known around town as the expert on all things subsistence.
The numbers (as of July 30):
The total run is now at 65.73 million, which broke the 2018 record of 62.9 million fish. The run blew past the pre-season forecast of 50 million.
The total harvest was 40 million, which is currently the fifth largest on record.
Escapement up rivers across the bay now totals at 25.6 million, making it the third largest on record.
The Nushagak District was busy this summer, and its large run was a huge contributor to the record-breaking year.
Fleets around the Nushagak District hauled in a total of 17.5 million fish making it the second largest catch on record behind 2018, when fishermen caught 24.2 million fish.
The total run was also notable with 27.4 fish swimming upriver, making this year the second largest run in the Nushagak District on record. 2018 saw a larger run with 33.75 million fish. The run nearly doubled the pre-season forecast of 15 million.
We’ll take a look at how those numbers shook out by river.
The Nushagak River’s escapement is at 4.6 million. That’s more than 3 and a half million fish over its upper end goal of 900,000. The 2021 escapement goal for the Nushagak River was 370,000-900,000.
The Wood River escapement is at 4.3 million -- almost two and a half times the upper end goal of 1.8 million.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Wood River was 700,000-1,800,000.
The Igushik River also far outpaced the upper end escapement -- 841,470 fish swam on to their spawning grounds there -- more than double the upper escapement goal.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Igushik River was 150,000-400,000.
Togiak’s escapement is right in the middle of its goal range, as 180,000 fish have passed the counting tower there. Togiak is still counting and there are more fish to come.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Togiak River was 120,000-270,000.
Fishermen in the Naknek-Kvichak District caught 8.73 million fish this season.
The total run in the district totaled 19 million which crept past the forecast of 17 million.
Escapement up the Naknek River was 2.8 million -- which means the Naknek River also exceeded its maximum goal of 2 million sockeye this season.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Naknek River was 800,000-2,000,000.
The Kvichak River’s escapement was 4.5 million fish, settling right in the middle of its goal range.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Kvichak River was 2,000,000-10,000,000.
The Alagnak River had a big run this year.
Escapement up that river came to 3 million fish.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Alagnak River was greater than 210,000.
Egegik’s run may have come in slightly under forecast of 11 million fish with 9.6 million, but its escapement is on the upper end of its goal range, at 1.8 million fish.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Egegik River was 800,000-2,000,000.
Egegik fishermen hauled in 7.6 million fish this season.
Ugashik saw a lot of activity this season.
Ugashik’s run eclipsed its upper end goal of 1.4 million to come in at 2.7 million fish, making it the second largest escapement following 1980.
The 2021 escapement goal for the Ugashik River was 500,000-1,400,000.
Fishermen hauled in a total of 4.8 million fish in the Ugashik district.
The total run was 7.5 million fish making it the second largest run behind 2016. The forecast for this year was 6.5 million.
At the Chignik River, 3,612 sockeye have passed the weir as of 9 a.m. today.
The early run is at 263,820. The late run is at 195,683. A total of 459,749 sockeye have passed the weir so far this season.
The Chinook run is at 1,057.
Six pinks passed the weir this morning, bringing the pink escapement to 1,008.
That’s it for the numbers this season. There will be one final daily run summary posted online Monday August 2nd, and the final season summary will be available mid-September.
Correction: The 2018 run was 62.9 sockeye, not 69.2 as initially stated here.
Contact the fish team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-842-2200