Chignik’s early run of sockeye this year is the lowest on record, and it failed to meet its lower-end escapement goal for the third year in a row. With commercial fishing at a standstill, the community is struggling to make ends meet.
Update Aug. 10, 2020: Chignik's total sockeye run is now at 265,991. The early run is at 138,448 and the late run is at 127,543.
In Chignik Bay, the sockeye run that has sustained the small community for generations is all but gone.
“As of right now, the way it’s trending, it’s looking like one of the worst years in Chignik history,” says Ross Renick, the management biologist for the Chignik area.
Chignik has two sockeye runs — an early run and a late run. The early run escapement is at about 140,000 fish — barely a fourth of the pre-season forecast. This is the third year in a row that the early run has failed to make escapement goals, and this year, the late run seems to be failing as well. The late run escapement is at only a third of its forecast — it just passed 100,000 fish.
“Usually the criteria for a stock of concern is three years of not meeting the minimum escapement goal, so there is the potential that this early run could turn into a stock of concern,” Renick adds.
Those salmon runs are the foundation of life in the region.
“It’s hard to write a budget when you don’t even know if a fishery is going to exist," Ben Allen, a member of the Chignik city council and a fisherman explains. "And how many people are going to be in your town any more. And what you’re even going to do for an income."
Chignik residents are stuck. Even if there were commercial openers — there hasn’t been one yet this season — the nearest processors are a 200-odd mile journey by boat, an economically ludicrous and dangerous journey.
“We can’t get the processors to come in here because we don’t have enough salmon," adds Allen. "They always tell us, ‘Well we have to have salmon there to open a processor and then evolve it.’ We’re in a pretty tight spot and stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Allen is among the people in the Chignik Bay who feel that the problem extends beyond the poor runs of the last few years.
“There’s no potential of a fishery happening if we keep doing the same things over and over again,” he says.
Allen is referring to a controversial issue — intercept fisheries. He says the Board of Fish is allowing other fishing management areas to harvest Chignik fish, thereby reducing opportunity for Chignik.
In the early 2000s, a Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification Program study, also known as WASSIP, showed high interception of terminal-fishery fish in the outer Port Heiden area. Many Chignik fishermen think the same thing is happening with intercept fisheries on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, and that the Board of Fish and state management are ignoring the issue.
Ross Renick, the Chignik biologist, doesn’t think the area’s run is failing because of intercept fisheries further down the Alaska Peninsula.
“It’s really hard to speculate and say ‘They’re catching Chignik fish in certain areas and that’s why we’re not getting escapement,’" Renick explains. "That’s a pretty big leap to take.”
Instead, he sees the issue as a combination of environmental factors.
“It could be the decrease in Black Lake productivity, combined with a near-shore environment and then when you get that going on, Chignik is just getting hammered twice,” he says.
Climate change only compounds matters further. Several years ago a mass of warm water near the Gulf of Alaska, known as "the blob," disrupted the ocean environment. Water levels in Black Lake, where the early run fish spawn, have been dropping as well. In response to these events, the Chignik management area is launching a three-year research project in 2021 to study the freshwater environment and try to piece together what’s happened to the runs.
Research project aside, residents of Chignik Bay are dejected, not only about their personal situations, but the future of the community itself.
“It is a very big concern," says Illane Ashby, who grew up in Chignik. "Not just for the income and revenue for our village and families. It is our future generation that is going to be hurt the most.”
Raechel Allen, another lifelong resident, agrees.
“The next generation of kids, they’re not even getting the opportunity to get out and fish any more, and they’re basically losing the knowledge, they’re losing the skills, losing the traditions, and losing the way of life, for a whole generation now,” she says.
Years of poor harvests, of feeling overlooked and ignored by state and federal fisheries management, and recent earthquake damage have rattled the community. They hope that voicing their frustrations will prompt the state to act in a way that will meaningfully rebuild the struggling Chignik stocks.
Ben Allen summed up the feelings of many Chignik community members and fishermen.
“What is Alaska without fish? What is Chignik without fishing? If all areas were treated this way, would Alaska still be Alaska?” he says.
Last fall, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the 2018 salmon season in the Chignik area a disaster and this spring, the Secretary allocated $10.3 million in relief funding to the community. The public can submit comments on the initial draft of the proposed distribution of those disaster funds until August 14.
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