Commercial fishermen who fish near the Chignik River have been unable to cast their nets to catch sockeye all summer; not enough red salmon are returning to the river for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to open the fishery. As summer winds down, some are beginning to doubt there will be any commercial sockeye openings before the season comes to a close.
After a summer of sitting on the beach, the situation for fishermen near the Chignik River continues to worsten. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s minimum escapement goal for the region was around 550,000 red salmon, but so far only about 400,000 have returned.
While salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay have broken records this summer, near the Chignik River on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, the situation isn’t as positive.
“Sockeye salmon escapement in Chignik has continued to be at pretty much a historical low,” said Dawn Wilburn, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s salmon wildlife biologist for the region. According to her, this is the Chignik River’s worst return since the 1960’s.
The Chignik River has two sockeye runs; the first finished in July far under Fish and Game’s minimum escapement goal, and some worry that the second won’t fare any better. The region still needs to see over 100,000 sockeye return to meet the lower end of the escapement goal for the summer, but it’s second run usually finishes up in September, which is fast approaching.
According to Wilburn, the dismal return is part of a larger trend sockeye fisheries around the Gulf of Alaska are experiencing this season. She said that some researchers believe the reason behind the poor salmon numbers could have to do with the abnormal warming event in the gulf that occurred a few years ago, known as the “Blob.”
“These fish that would’ve gone out [into the ocean] in 2015 and would’ve been returning this year would have hit the warmer water could have affected the survival of the fish,” Wilburn explained.
The sockeye the Chignik River produced in 2015 weren’t the strongest looking fish, which could have contributed to this year’s low numbers as well, according to Wilburn.
“Based off of the smolt studies, we had going on here in 2015 and 14 that fish going out just tended to be a little smaller than normal and maybe a little less fit," she said. "So, the fact that they were going out as smaller fish and maybe hitting not so optimal ocean conditions could’ve been a double whammy on them.”
Despite the lack of a single commercial opener for sockeye, longtime Chignik fishermen George Anderson said that people are still optimistic about the possibility that they will get to fish.
“People are looking forward to going fishing here in August, but the fish are still not showing up,” he said.
Communities and residents in the region depend on the sockeye run, and many worry what the future will hold if it continues to falter.
“It’s all we have," said Anderson. "We don’t have winter fisheries. You know we don’t have timber. You know we don’t have a lot of options here. Sockeye really is everything here.”
Fish and Game said that even if the Chignik River doesn’t meet its escapement goal, future runs won’t necessarily be damaged. But to fully understand this year’s impact, people will have to wait and see what happens.