For the last few week’s millions of sockeye smolt have been leaving the major lakes in the Bristol Bay region headed for the salt water. They will be back in a couple of years as the adult sockeye that power the Bay’s massive commercial fishery.
For the last 6-years a project has been ongoing on the Kvichak River to count the migrating smolt in an effort to better document the health and productivity of the Iliamna Lake system. As part of that project a small team of technicians go out every night this time of year and collect a sample of 600-smolt from a location about 2-miles downriver from the Lake. Some of the technicians work for Fish and Game, while others work for the BBEDC’s “Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute”. Both are partnering on the project. The technicians use a small pontoon raft with what looks like a sluice box in the center. When the darkness hits they drop the apparatus into the Kvichak River and start collecting smolt. They are collected in intervals in an attempt to get samples from different segments of the overall biomass. Every 5 minutes around 100 smolt are dipped out of the collection box and dumped into a 5-gallon bucket. This is done 6 times to make up the sample that is then be taken back to the Fish and Game bunkhouse in in Igiugig where the technicians collect genetic and scale samples along with taking length measurements that allow them to determine if the smolt spent one or 2 years in the lake.
The Bristol Bay sockeye run is among the most documented salmon runs on earth but there are some very large holes in the data including estimates of how many smolt leave the various river systems in the spring. Combining the smolt data with the data collected annually by ADF&G can provide a much clearer picture of the health and productivity of the Kvichak River’s sockeye run. However, sampling is necessary to determine if the age of the smolt includes spending one or 2 years in the freshwater environment. General wisdom is that the longer a fish spends in the freshwater the greater chance of surviving once they hit the marine environment.
Documenting the outmigration of smolt in any river in Bristol Bay can be very challenging with limitations in the effectiveness of the sonar technology and the inherent challenges of trying to conduct a project in such a remote location. Once the 600 smolt sample from the different schools of fish are collected the technicians then return the sampling raft to the shoreline and head back to Igiugig where they then spend the next few overnight hours collecting the genetic and other data that is used to analyze the Kvichak River smolt run.
The sonar technology used to count the smolt in the Kvichak River was specifically designed for use in Bristol Bay. Instead of looking across the river the sonar modules are placed on the bottom and look up through the water column. The 2 sonar arrays in the Kvichak River were put in on May 19th and they will be pulled out around June 13th or 14th. After that all of the data will be taken to Anchorage were researchers with ADF&G, BBSRI, and LGL Alaska Research Associates will analyze it and prepare a report on the 2013 project. That report will likely come out sometime early next year.
Last year the total sockeye salmon smolt abundance was estimated at just over 49-million at the first sonar site and 47-million at the second site. It’s estimated that only 1 in 10 to 20 smolt actually survive to return as adult sockeye. Last year’s Iliamna Lake smolt will likely come back next year or in 2014 for the 3-ocean fish.
Counting smolt in Bristol Bay is nothing new with projects dating back to the 1960’s but by 2002 all of the projects run the Fish and Game were discontinued. Because smolt counts provide a wealth of information about survival in the freshwater environment a renewed effort was started and the first digitally-based sonar system was tested in the Kvichak River in 2008. Since that time the smolt counting effort has been expanded to the Ugahsik and Egegik River’s.
The smolt counting projects in Bristol Bay are funded by BBSRI, the City of Pilot Point, the Pilot Point Tribal Council, the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund and BBSRI’s benefactors: which include Alaskan Leader, Bristol Leader, Arctic Fjord and Arctic Storm. This year’s smolt run out of Iliamna Lake come from the 2010 and 2011 sockeye runs to the Kvichak River and the majority of this year’s smolt will come back to the River in 2015 as 2-ocean fish. A much smaller percentage will return to the River in 2016 as 3-ocean fish.
The commercial fishing season in the Naknek-Kvichak District officially opened up on June 3rd but there has been little to no effort because the sockeye have not yet showed up. Through June 21st the District is operating under a weekly fishing schedule that runs from Monday’s at 9-am to Friday’s at 9-am. Commercial fishing is currently allowed throughout the whole Naknek-Kvichak District for the setnetters and in just the Naknek Section for the drifters.
The ADF&G Area Management Biologist for the District is Slim Morstad. He says that once the weekly fishing schedule ends on June 21st fishermen need to stand by for announcements about when and where to go fishing.
The total run to the Naknek-Kvichak River this year is forecasted at 10.6-million sockeye. If that turns out to be correct the commercial harvest could be around 5.6-million fish. The escapement goal for the Kvichak River will be 2.5-million but the escapement goal for the river can be changed in-season based on an assessment of the actual run. Last year the sockeye run to the Naknek-Kvichak District was 4-percent above the forecast and the harvest was recorded at nearly 10-million sockeye. Actual escapement to the Kvichak River was recorded at 4.1-million fish and escapement to the Naknek River was recorded at 900-thousand sockeye.
One of the priority points of emphasis for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in recent years across Bristol Bay has been to stress the importance of fishermen recording king salmon harvested as incidental catch in the sockeye fishery. Fishermen are still allowed to sell or even keep kings as a home-pack but those kings need to be recorded on an ADF&G fish ticket at the time of landing.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has not yet started counting sockeye escapement to the Naknek and Kvichak Rivers. Escapement to the Kvichak River is done at counting towers set up just downriver from Igiugig and the towers should be up and counting on June 20th. The counting towers on the Naknek River should be providing escapement information by June 19th or 20th.