Bristol Bay remains lone bright spot for sockeye harvest across state

  • As of July 20, Bristol Bay fishermen had landed about 35.8 million sockeye out of 52.6 million sockeye that have returned to the bay in 2020. The Bay is once again the lone bright spot for salmon harvest across the state as runs aren’t measuring up to preseason forecasts. (Photo/File/AJOC)

The statewide salmon harvest is ticking up as the summer goes on, but most of that is in Bristol Bay. In most of the rest of the state, the harvest has been disappointing.

As of July 20, Bristol Bay fishermen had landed about 35.8 million sockeye, which is slightly more than the preseason forecast of 34.5 million. Overall, 52.6 million sockeye have returned to the bay in 2020, which is also ahead of the preseason forecast of just less than 49 million. Both are less than the 2019 numbers, when the runs significantly outperformed preseason forecasts.

Most of those were harvested in the Naknek-Kvichak and Egegik districts in the eastern bay, with 12.8 million and 11.5 million sockeye harvested respectively. The Nushagak District has seen 8.6 million sockeye landed, followed by the Ugashik District with about 1.8 million. The Togiak District has landed 161,438 as of July 20, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

West side commercial area management biologist Tim Sands says one thing holding up Nushagak harvest early in the season was the king salmon escapement there. Like other rivers across the state this year, the king salmon run there was less than biologists would like to see, which limited commercial fishing opportunities.

“We were very conservative here for quite a while because of Nushagak River king salmon,” he said. “We didn’t make the king salmon escapement last year, we didn’t make it again this year.”

But once the king salmon run was mostly over, they were able to get down to fishing. The Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik, and Nushagak districts lined up this year for harvest, with more than 2 million of them hitting the processors the weekend of July 4. But overall, the Nushagak has felt a little strange this year, Sands said.

“We’re looking at the fifth-largest harvest in the Nushagak District ever, and it just didn’t feel that way,” he said. “(It was) really frenzied, and then quiet, then frenzied, then quiet. Compared to the last three years, when it picked up and was steady for a long time, it just seemed different this year.”

The prices so far aren’t likely to be what they were in the last few years, either. Early posted prices on the South Peninsula were about 60 cents per pound. Bristol Bay’s prices may change a little, but that 60-cent price point is a little more than a third of last year’s average price of $1.54 per pound. Prices are also subject to fluctuation with the openings and closings of restaurants due to concerns about the pandemic.

But the bay is doing better than everywhere else in the state for sockeye. Kodiak fishermen have landed about 396,000 sockeye for one of the worst sockeye harvests in decades; Cook Inlet is up to 493,000; and the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Island is about 1.5 million. Prince William Sound landings are about 885,000, or less than half of what last year, largely due to a disappointing Copper River run that led to shutdowns early on in the season.

Cook Inlet is also having a slow harvest season, with the Kenai River’s sockeye run trickling in and disappointingly few king salmon numbers forcing managers to rein in the commercial fleet. The Kenai River isn’t likely to meet its king salmon escapement goals, according to Fish and Game’s projections, which means the setnet fleet is limited to 24 hours of fishing time per week by emergency order only.

If the sportfishery for kings closes entirely, the East Side setnet fleet will as well. The Kasilof River run of sockeye is performing well, with enough fish already in the river to meet escapement despite both commercial fisheries and a 24-hour personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river, and managers have been using the 600-foot fishery in the area to help control escapement.

Prince William Sound is transitioning to pink salmon now and so landings are about 5.8 million of them so far, only a little behind the 2018 catch by this date. The wild run forecast for the whole of the sound is about 4.4 million, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. and Valdez Fisheries Development Association are each expecting about 14.6 million hatchery pinks to return. Kodiak’s pink harvest is significantly up from this time 2018, with about 554,000 of them landed, and Southeast is slightly ahead, with 477,000 landed.

The pink salmon harvest pace overall is largely on par with what it was around this time in 2018, according to an update from the McDowell Group.

“The peak of the statewide pink harvest is typically the last week of July or first week of August,” the update states. “According to the ADF&G harvest projection, PWS will contribute most pink production this year followed by Southeast and Kodiak.”

Southeast’s salmon season has largely been disappointing except for king salmon, though that overall catch is fairly small. About 117,000 king salmon have been landed in Southeast, which is about 10 percent above last year’s catch at this time, according to the McDowell Group harvest update.

The chum salmon run was forecast to be about 3.9 million from the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, about 2 million from Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association and about 1.6 million from Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc. By all metrics, those runs are underperforming. Southeast fishermen had landed about 705,000 chum as of July 21, according to ADFG. Some of those runs to hatcheries are fall chum, but inseason tracking from Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association shows the runs are behind.

Through July 17, chum landing were about 69 percent off the five-year average, according to the McDowell Group. Kodiak is an exception, with landings ahead of last year for chum, pink, coho and kings, according to the McDowell Group.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/22/2020 - 9:41am