Bristol Bay run hits all-time record of 76 million sockeye

The sockeye salmon run in Bristol Bay, Alaska, U.S.A. has surpassed 76 million, setting an all-time record.

The sockeye salmon run in Bristol Bay, Alaska, U.S.A. has surpassed 76 million fish, setting an all-time record.

As of 21 July, the latest day for which a count is available, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported a total run of 76,583,856 sockeye, with a cumulative catch of 58,298,771 sockeye between Bristol Bay’s Ugashik, Egegik, Naknek-Kvichak, Nushagak, and Togiak fisheries. The count  surpassed AFDG’s pre-season estimate predicted a run of 73.4 million sockeye salmon, the largest inshore run ever, with a potential harvest of over 61 million salmon.

The sockeye catch is up 36 percent year-over-year compared the same period of 2021, with 95 percent of the expected sockeye catch already brought in.

“Sockeye harvests have been record breaking in Bristol Bay but also strong compared to last year in most other parts of the state,” an Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute report, compiled by the McKinley Research Group, stated.

The Bristol Bay sockeye run was so big that McKinley predicted a shortage of refrigerated shipping containers could occur toward the end of the season, which wraps up in early August. U.S. supermarket chains that have been featuring Alaska salmon throughout the summer and are now promoting Bristol Bay sockeye salmon after the record harvest.

Processors are paying a base price of USD 1.15 (EUR 1.13) in Bristol Bay this season, up from pre-season offers of USD 1.00 (EUR 0.95) but down from the USD 1.25 (EUR 1.23) they paid in 2021. THe price is expected to rise, and does not include year-end bonuses, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Combined with a strong run of pink salmon – the 24.9 million pinks caught thus far are 37 percent of the projected run of 67.2 million,up 70 percent compared to the catch at the same time in 2020 (pink salmon return to Alaska in large numbers every two years) – have given Alaska’s seafood sector cause for celebration.

“This was a natural abundance of epic proportions that filled the rivers, smokehouses, freezers, jars, and hearts of everyone involved,” Nora Skeele, working onboard the Seahawk in Bristol Bay’s Nushagak District, told National Fisherman. “These catch records occurred with every escapement goal met, preventing overfishing and propagating future healthy runs.”

However, sockeye returns in other areas of Alaska, and runs of king, coho, and keta salmon, have been alarmingly low thus far in 2022, according to the Alaska Beacon. The Kodiak and Cook Inlet sockeye runs are both down year-over-year, keta salmon catches are down 12 percent, and harvests of king salmon are down 14 percent, McKinley Research Group reported 23 July.

“Coho continue to be well short of expectations, with harvests down 58 percent year to date – though there is still time for a recovery,” it said in its report.

The chum salmon run, in the Yukon River, which begins in late summer, “is anticipated to be critically low,” AFDG said in a 14 July press release. The king runs in the Yukon River basin may not meet any of the escapement goals for the river’s tributaries, Alaska Beacon reported. And protections put in place for the prized king salmon, also known as chinook salmon, are costing some sockeye fishermen prized fishing days. On 20 July, ADFG opened the offshore area of Cook Inlet for sockeye fishing but prohibited set-netters from fishing until the number of chinooks going by the in-river sonar counter improved. According to Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association Vice President Ken Coleman, as of 24 July, dozens of other shore-based family set-net operations had fished only three days, and other set-net operations in the harvest next district over had fished only two days.

“Every single user group is fishing at maximum capacity now,” Coleman told National Fisherman. “It’s frustrating, maddening – pick an adjective.”

Dan Schindler, a professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences at the University of Washington, told the Alaska Beacon scientists aren’t sure what’s causing the bifurcation in salmon runs.

“In terms of what the mechanism is, it’s really hard to really pinpoint that,” he said. “What we have is correlations. And the correlations are that when we’ve had really warm – to hot, even – eastern Bering Sea surface temperatures, Bristol Bay sockeye have done really well. And other species in the region haven’t."

The differences could stem from several factors, Schindler said. 

“We know they eat slightly different things in the ocean. They migrate to the ocean at slightly different times during the season. They probably have slightly different behaviors in the ocean. All of those things are making chinook and chums vulnerable to something that sockeye aren’t – at least sockeye that are returning to Bristol Bay," he said. "I suspect it’s something to do with ocean temperatures causing some change in the food web — that smolts leaving the west side of Bristol Bay are hitting really excellent conditions for survival, whereas smolts leaving places like Chignik and the Copper River are hitting ocean conditions that have been really poor for smolt survival.”

Warmer water temperatures in the sockeye’s spawning grounds may be causing a boom in their food source – primarily plankton – allowing juveniles to grow faster and stronger before their exit to the ocean, and possibly helping them to survive at higher rates, Schindler said.

Whatever is causing the phenomenon, Schindler said studies of historical sockeye runs going back hundreds of years, performed by studying nitrogen isotopes in river sediment, show the latest Bristol Bay runs could be an all-time high for the region.

“If you add up the catch and escapement that we’ve observed in the last 25 or 30 years, the sum of those two numbers appears to be higher than the number of fish that ever returned to these lakes in the last 500 to 1,000 years,” he said. “And while that might seem surprising, it really does support what we’ve seen with our real time data over the last 50 or 60 years that climate warming has actually made these lakes more productive than they were 100, 200, and 300 and longer – 400 years in the past.”

Photo courtesy of Perry Broderick


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