In this year’s Neqa Derby on the Nushagak, smaller Chinook and slow fishing hint at a bigger tale

Jul 6, 2021

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation held its third annual in-person king salmon derby in June to raise money for higher-education programs. And while the crowds were big -- it attracted sports fishermen from all over the state and even the country -- the fish were pretty small.

Neqa Derby fishermen. June 2021.
Credit BBNC Education Foundation


People gathered on the shore of the Nushagak River a few miles from Portage Creek to watch fishermen weigh their catch. 

It was a sunny weekend afternoon in mid-June, in the middle of the Neqa Derby. Neqa means fish or food in Yup’ik.

Ilona Bessenyey was among the crowd. And, at this point in the derby, she was at the top of the scoreboard. 

“It’s almost my first year fishing anywhere, ever,” said Bessenyey, an Elder law attorney from Anchorage  It’s been really fun, I’ve managed to go from catching the smallest fish to -- so far today -- catching the biggest fish.”

Her fish was 17.1 pounds.

Russel Nelson weighs a small king at the Neqa Derby. June 19, 2021.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

For context, the last year the derby was held, in 2019, the winner caught a fish that weighed in at more than 30 pounds.

Bessenyey’s big catch -- or small one, depending on who you ask  -- points at a broader trend this summer: The Chinook run up the Nushagak is extremely low this year. And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sportfish Division has already cut the daily bag limit for kings from two to one.

But Aleesha Townes-Bain, the executive director of the BBNC Education Foundation, underscored that the point of the derby isn’t just to fish -- it’s to raise money for scholarships and cultural heritage projects.

“This year for the education foundation, we funded 200 students who are pursuing their higher education goals, as well as students who are pursuing career-focused vocational education,” she said.

The derby ended up raising more than $156,000.

As Townes-Bain spoke about the fundraising, a woman ran up to the weigh station with a small king. Russel Nelson helped weigh it.

"OK, we’re zeroing it up, I’ll show you -- it’s going to come to zero. OK, now I’ve got a four point five!" Nelson said as people nearby applauded. 

Maggie Carr and her niece, Avara, get ready to head back out on the water. June 19, 2021.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

Maggie Carr was another fisher in this year’s derby. She was launching her boat for another afternoon of fishing, and said it’s been slow.

“The numbers are really low, so nobody’s really catching anything -- I haven’t caught one personally yet,” said Carr, who works for the Bristol Bay Housing Authority in Dillingham. 

Carr won the derby in 2019, reeling in a 30.7-pound king. This year, she hasn’t been as lucky, she said.

“It’s definitely slowed down a lot more,” she said.

Carr’s family was in the boat behind her that afternoon, getting ready to fish.

“They love to catch seaweed,” she laughed. “They want to catch the biggest seaweed. They don’t care about the fish. They’re like, ‘Let’s catch seaweed!”

“For my seaweed collection!” said her niece, Avara.

As more fish were reeled in, Ilona Bessenyey, the first-time fisher, dropped from first to third place -- and won $500.

In second, Craig Dunn won a $1,500 prize.

This year’s first-place award went to Lincoln Uyehara for his 19.1 pound salmon, earning him $2,500 in prize money.

The slower derby with smaller fish isn't surprising; Since 2007, the state’s Chinook runs have consistently declined, forcing managers to restrict or close fishing in certain areas.

The Nushagak’s Chinook run has not reached its minimum escapement of 55,000 fish for the past two years. So far, this year’s run is over halfway to that goal. 

Still, Lee Borden, the sport fisheries biologist in Dillingham, said fisheries managers believe king salmon may be underrepresented in the counts from the sonar counter on the Nushagak River. They have also been getting reports from sport fishermen that the run has picked up.

And while a full closure is a possibility, Borden said they will likely take a more gradual approach.

“We tend to go on the side of a step down approach, where maybe at some point this season we would go to a catch and release before or if we ever went to a full closure,” he said.

For now, he said, they will wait and see.

An aerial view of the Neqa Derby. June 19, 2021.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200