KDLG Header Banner Image
Public Radio for Alaska's Bristol Bay
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bristol Bay Fisheries Report: July 21, 2022

Brian Venua

Bristol Bay’s sockeye run has reached 76 million. As we head toward the end of July, harvests continue to drop off. But some runs are still going strong – the Kvichak’s escapement was over 100,000 fish on Wednesday. And the Nushagak District’s run is now 30 million fish.

'Fish for Families' sends of Bristol Bay sockeye to Chignik and Yukon River communities

Bristol Bay’s sockeye run has been tremendous. But other communities across the state have experienced record-low returns. A new program, ‘Fish for Families,’ aims to bring salmon to the Chigniks and communities along the Yukon River. KDLG's Izzy Ross talked to the program’s director, Natalie Sattler, about these efforts and what the plan is moving forward.

KDLG's Izzy Ross gets an update on the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association seafood donation program from director Natalie Sattler.

You can find out more about the seafood donation program at the Alaska Longline Fishermen Association's website.

Fish and Game tests new counting method for Nushagak River salmon

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game changed how it counts the fish that pass through the sonar site on the Nushagak River this year.

The sonar, about 25 miles upriver of the commercial fishing district, allows technicians to get population estimates of Chinook, chum and sockeye salmon as they swim upstream toward their spawning grounds.

But in a memo quietly published in mid-June, state biologists said a recent study showed the existing method of counting may have undercounted Chinook and chum runs. And they said they hope the new methodology provides more accurate counts of the salmon species going forward — which could be increasingly important as managers grapple with low king salmon counts on the Nushagak and around Alaska.

Bristol Bay area research biologist Jordan Head said the sonar gives Fish and Game technicians a visual of the fish swimming past so they can get a count of the run.

“It almost looks like an ultrasound, where you can see fish swimming past the sonar,” he said.

The sonar records 10-minute intervals, every hour, at two different sections on the Nushagak River – one near shore and one off-shore. Head says that sockeye usually swim near shore while kings and chum are usually further offshore. But the sonar doesn’t differentiate between species.

“We can see the fish swimming upriver just like on a [counting] tower, but we can't see what they are,” he said. “So we then run a drift gillnet program. We drift several different gill net mesh sizes through each of those two strata on each bank.”

Technicians analyze the sonar and the catch in those two places to estimate how many fish in each species is running upriver.

Until this summer, the department has also factored in the number of fish swimming downriver — called downstream fish. Technicians would subtract that downstream count from the upstream count for their final estimate of upstream migrators for that time period.

“That works really well,” Head said. “But there's a lot of assumptions that we're making with it.”

He said until now, the sonar project has operated under two major assumptions. One is that the downstream fish count breaks down into the same species makeup as the upstream fish. For example, if they apportion out that the run upriver at 90% sockeye, 7% chum and 3% kings, they apply that ratio to the downstream count, too. The other assumption, Head said, is that the fish swim both downstream and upstream in the same section of the river — either in-shore or offshore.

“We always want to try and make the least amount of assumptions that we can, especially when we can't test the assumptions in our project design,” he said.

Head said the department’s study last year indicated that subtraction may have undercounted both Chinook and chum runs.

When technicians didn’t subtract the downstream count, the Chinook run numbers increased by approximately 9%. The chum run went up 3% and the sockeye run increased by 1%.

“What we think is going on up there, and why this change was made, is because you have sockeye escapements that are in the millions of fish, and you have king escapements that are in the, you know, 50-ish thousand fish range,” Head said. “And so if on average, about 1% of the fish do circle back and come downstream, if we're misapplying those downstream sockeye as kings, that makes a big deal in the king count.”

The change comes as area managers, fishermen and residents are watching escapement counts closely after several years of low Chinook returns up the Nushagak. This year, just over 44,000 Chinook have escaped, far under the minimum goal of 55,000.

The Nushagak District’s Chinook harvest is 4,605 fish so far. That’s the largest catch of all districts in the bay. The bay-wide harvest of 7,558 Chinook is far lower than the 20-year average of around 40,000 kings.

Head said they are still counting the downstream fish this season, and that a report on the change will be available before the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting this winter.

He added that the difference in counts between the two methodologies varies each year. And so far, this year it hasn’t meant much of a difference.

“It might not be a better estimate. But scientifically speaking, we're making less assumptions. And we have smaller errors – potential error – associated with making less assumptions,” he said.

Head is planning to re-analyze counts dating back to 2006 to see how the new way of counting may affect the department’s escapement goals for the Chinook run.

“Hopefully within the next two weeks, I'm going to be able to get out and do the postseason Chinook aerial surveys in the tributaries and kind of be able to tell us if it was better than last year, or if it wasn't better than last year,” he said.

Preliminary estimates for Chinook escapements in the Nushagak District are expected to be available this fall.

There are a number of sonar sites across the state, some of which count salmon differently.

Sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka says the sonar site on the Kenai River is similar to the Nushagak’s in that it captures 10-minute intervals every hour. But the Kenai sonar is dedicated to just counting Chinook. They monitor runs by the size of the fish, counting salmon 34 inches and larger.

“We know with some pretty good certainty that that is going to be a king as the other species present would not be of that size. And due to the large proportion of large fish present in the Kenai run, we are able to then use that as our assessment metric,” he said.

Lipka said they started that program in 2017 to more accurately monitor Chinook escapement there. Prior to that they monitored all species, but they made the change to focus on kings. He says it works for the Kenai because of the bigger population of larger fish for that run.

Kenai is also facing a decrease in Chinook runs, which have declined since 2010. Just this week, sport and set-net fishing was closed due to low returns.

This year, the run is estimated at 12,700, that’s still below the escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000. But Lipka said the season goes through August 20, so they’re hopeful the run will increase.

Ted Krieg reads a Dave Carlson diary entry from July 12 - 22, 1939.

This summer, we’re taking a few minutes each week to sit back and listen to a day in the life of a commercial fisherman from more than 80 years ago. Local historian Ted Krieg started reading daily entries from the 1930s diary of Dave Carlson, who lived and worked in Bristol Bay. Each Thursday, Ted joins us to read another passage from Dave Carlson’s life, transcribed by Arlene Atkinson.

21BBFR Ted Krieg Dave Carlson.mp3

Fleets pulled in 338,500 fish on Wednesday, for a season total harvest of just under 58 million fish. Another 283,959 fish escaped past counting towers across the bay, bringing the population of active spawners to 18 million.

Bristol Bay’s run is now 76 million sockeye.

Nushagak District

As we head toward the end of July, Nushagak District harvest continues to drop. The fleet caught 67,000 fish on Wednesday, for a total harvest of almost 22.7 million fish.

46,697 salmon escaped up the district’s rivers, for a season total of 17.3 million.

The Nushagak District’s total run is now 30 million fish.

Nushagak River

Nushagak River’s sockeye escapement is slowing: 7,577 sockeye were counted swimming past the sonar, for a season escapement of 3.4 million fish.

The chum run was 1,332 for a total escapement of 99,467.

The sonar crew counted 31 Chinook on Wednesday, bringing escapement to 43,753.

Wood River

The Wood River’s run is holding steady: 22,242 sockeye swam past the tower, and another 1,476 swam upriver this morning. The Wood’s total escapement is at 3.6 million fish.

Igushik River

The Igushik tower crew counted 16,878 sockeye on Wednesday, and another 5,394 as of 6 a.m. this morning. The Igushik’s total escapement is at 280,368.

Togiak District

Daily harvest in Togiak was 7,500 fish, for a total of 250,025.

Togiak’s tower counted 3,198 fish on Wednesday and another 2,682 fish this morning. The total escapement there is now at 48,438.

Togiak’s total run is now 295,781 fish.

Naknek-Kvichak District

The Naknek-Kvichak fleet brought in 113,000 fish on Wednesday. The cumulative harvest is now 13.9 million fish.

Escapement across the district was 207,930, for a total of 7.5 million.

The district’s total run is now 21.4 million.

Naknek River

The Naknek’s escapement was 15,876 on Wednesday, for a cumulative of 1.9 million.

Kvichak River

The Kvichak’s run is still coming in strong: Another 113,130 fish swam past the counting tower on Wednesday, bringing that total to 4 million.

Alagnak River

Alagnak’s daily return was 78,924, for a total of 1.5 million.

Egegik District 

Egegik’s fleet caught 90,000 on Wednesday, for a total harvest of 15.2 million. Escapement there was 13,192, for a season count of 1.7 million.

Egegik’s total run has reached 17 million.

Ugashik District

Ugashik fishermen caught 61,000 fish on Wednesday for a total harvest of 5.7 million. Escapement up the Ugashik River came in at 12,942 fish, for a season total of 1.3 million.

Ugashik’s total run is now 7.1 million.

Chignik Weir

At the Chignik Weir, 2,712 early run salmon returned for a total of 415,616. The late run came in at 10,838 fish, for a total count of 159,752.

Another 18 Chinook came back, for a season total of 500.

Area M 

Area M fishermen caught 141,224 sockeye on Wednesday, for a total of 7.4 million. The fleet also caught 1,078 kings – that total harvest is at 8,873. The pink salmon catch was 99,803 for a total of 1.3 million. The daily chum harvest was 24,025, bringing that total catch to 639,367. The coho catch was 2,185 for a total of 6,934.

About half of the Chinook harvest was caught by the South Peninsula’s Shumagin Islands and South Unimak and fleets in June, and a little over half were caught in the Shumagin Islands areas in July.

Those fleets also caught most of Area M’s chum and pink salmon harvests in June.

The South Peninsula’s South Unimak and Shumagin Islands fleets also caught a little over half of the total sockeye catch in June, while the North Peninsula caught a little less than half of Area M’s total sockeye harvest.

This web post was updated to further explain the assumptions made by technicians under the Nushagak River sonar's previous methodology.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.
Corinne Smith is a reporter and producer who grew up in Oakland, California and on her family’s horse ranch in rural San Rafael, CA, a contrast that nurtured a deep appreciation for the complexities of identity and belonging, and connection to place, land and the natural world. She began her reporting career at KPFA in Berkeley, first as a general assignment reporter and then as lead producer of UpFront, a daily morning news and public affairs show. In 2020, she served as the summer reporter for KFSK in Petersburg where she first got hooked on Alaska stories. For the last year, she's been a general assignment reporter for KHNS based in Haines, and thrilled to experience a new part of Alaska and cover the Bristol Bay fishing season this summer with KDLG!
Brian Venua grew up in Dillingham and attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. He got his start in journalism at KDLG in 2020, interviewing and writing for the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report and signed on as a full-time host and reporter later that year.