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Bristol Bay Fisheries Report: July 27, 2022

BV Kanakanak Beach.jpg
Brian Venua
Kanakanak beach at sunset

In the penultimate fish report for the 2022 season we look at the ecology, biology and management of the fishery.

Bristol Bay is wrapping up its largest sockeye run on record with over 77 million salmon returning to spawn. Harvest is also at an all-time high of nearly 60 million, almost exactly what Fish and Game’s preseason forecast predicted.

"It's amazing to me to see how productive the systems are, relative to their historical averages," said Tim Sands, Fish and Game’s area management biologist for the west side of Bristol Bay. "Just not sure what happened that made it so much more productive, but certainly grateful for the bounty."

He credits the district’s large runs in part to the recent warmer winters.

"Having those mild winters gives that extra growing season or extra week or month or so of growing time for the rearing juvenile sockeye in the lakes and so when they go out to the ocean, they're just a little bit bigger," he said.

But even with record harvest numbers, sockeye escapement was still well over the upper boundary of the goals for both the Wood and Nushagak Rivers. Sands says the lakes and rivers have a high enough carrying capacity to handle that many fish.

"I am not concerned about the biology of it," Sands said. "As far as this idea of density dependent mortality because of too many fish in the lake. I think that you've had other years with bigger escapements and seeing decent returns off those."

He says while he’s sure fishermen would have liked to harvest even more salmon, it’s important to allow both Chinook and chum to meet their escapement goals as well.

"The big thing for me was the king and chum numbers. And we tried hard to get enough kings up the river. And we just didn't quite work out as far as the sonar count," he said.

The last Daily Run Summary for 2022 is scheduled to publish around August 10 and the final season count is expected this fall.

Fish and Game changes how they count salmon swimming up the Nushagak River 

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. As KDLG’s Corinne Smith reported for our show last week, state biologists hope the new method will yield more accurate estimates of Chinook and chum runs.

Fish and Game on Nushagak sonar site

How this year has stacked up for kings and chum in the Nushagak 

It’s been another year of low escapement counts for kings and chum up the Nushagak River. As of last count, the Chinook run up the Nushagak was around 44,200 fish. Chum were at almost 102,000.

Commercial harvest is another measure of abundance and preliminary catch numbers are also way down.

Across the bay, fishermen caught 7,600 kings. That’s just one fifth of the average harvest over the past 20 years of 39,600 fish.

The bay-wide harvest was around 412,000 chum. That’s less than half of the average harvest of 1.1 million fish over the past 20 years.

Most of that total harvest came from the Nushagak District, where the fleet pulled in 4,600 kings and almost 369,000 chum.

A full rundown of the returns and harvests will come out with the season summary this fall.

Port Moller Test Fishery

This season, the Port Moller Test Fishery launched their first at-sea genetics testing aboard the R/V Half Moon Bay in order to more quickly and efficiently assess the stock composition and abundance of sockeye salmon returning to Bristol Bay districts. KDLG’s Izzy Ross checked in with Michael Link, director of the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute which has managed the test fishery for the past two decades.

Michael Link on the Port Moller Test Fishery

Next we dive into the factors that go into the catch index. It’s not an exact science, but the indices supplement information that fishers already have about the fish headed their way. We asked Link about why there was some discrepancy between the catch index and stock estimates and the run.

Michael Link on the catch index

A slow season in Togiak

Not every run has boomed this summer. Togiak was forecast to see more than 1 million sockeye return this season. But Ed Wilbur, the general manager of Copper River Seafoods’ plant in Togiak, says the run has been slow.

“We were expecting more, and it just hasn’t quite picked up yet. Still hopeful – we still have some time left," Wilbur said.

So far, the total run is just over 334,600. But Togiak’s run is smaller and later than others in the bay. Last year, the largest single-day escapement was in early August. So Wilbur says they’re hoping the run still finishes strong.

“It hasn’t been a complete bust yet, but it definitely hasn’t been a great year yet. We’re hoping for fish to show up and we’re starting to see more jumpers so hopefully we just get a late little push through here," he said.

So far, fishermen have harvested around 282,000 sockeye. And Wilbur said many fishermen still have their nets in the water.

“They were expecting a better year but we understand it just is what it is. They’re still trying and I think a lot of people are still holding out for the run that they’re hoping to come," he said.

Togiak’s escapement is at 52,600 – under halfway to its minimum escapement goal of 120,000 fish.

Weather Wednesday 

Sunny days and more showers on the horizon this week — but nothing too unusual. KDLG’s Corinne Smith checked in with climate specialist Rick Thoman for the last Weather Wednesday of the season.

Weather Wednesday with Rick Thoman

Contact the team at fish@kdlg.org.

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.
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!
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.