ADFG: Bristol Bay sockeye runs set all-time record

  • A brailor of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is loaded in this Journal file photo. The total return of sockeye this year set the all-time record, besting the number set just a few years ago in 2018. (Photo/File/AJOC)

It’s official: Bristol Bay’s 2021 commercial salmon season was the largest on record.

In-season escapement and harvest estimates already set the stage for the record, but the end-season summary released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirmed it.

About 66.1 million sockeye salmon returned to the streams across the Bristol Bay watershed, breaking the previous record of 62.9 million, which was set in 2018. It’s only the third time in the bay’s history that the total inshore run has exceeded 60 million sockeye, according to Fish and Game.

While the run was 60 percent above the recent 20-year average and about 32 percent above the pre-season forecast, harvest didn’t quite exceed forecast to those levels. In total, fishermen harvested 40.4 million sockeye, 11 percent above the preseason forecast of 36.4 million. It’s only the fifth-largest harvest on record, but it’s the third time in the last four years that the harvest has come in higher than 40 million fish. The $247.7 million overall ex-vessel value — which includes all salmon species, not just sockeye — was the fourth largest in the bay’s history. That amount doesn’t include post-season adjustments, either.

During the season, managers noted that the average size of sockeye was somewhat smaller than historical averages. That’s in part because the fish that came back this year were younger. Fish and Game noted in the season summary that the dominant age class this year was three-year-old fish, or the 1.2 age class. They made up about 60 percent of the total run. The larger, older fish made up a much smaller component.

“Average weight for sockeye salmon was roughly a pound less than their most recent 20-year average of 5.7 pounds,” the summary notes.

Though some areas saw extremely high single days of returns — the Nushagak saw more than 1.8 million sockeye return in a single day in July — the overall run timing was earlier than in recent years as well. That helped with fishery operations.

“Inshore run timing to Bristol Bay this season was not as late as in recent years and aligned more with historical average timing in most districts,” managers wrote in the summary. “This helped the fishery to operate at full capacity for the entire season.”

Meanwhile, as Bristol Bay’s fishermen took home fat paychecks, other fisheries saw some of their worst seasons. Some of that was due to poor runs, and some was due to lack of harvester participation, lack of processor participation or both.

Chignik, for example, saw a stronger than expected late-season sockeye run, which was refreshing for an area that has seen multiple complete sockeye run failures in the last five years. However, this year, there was no one available to harvest it, as the failure of the early-season sockeye run led fishermen to go elsewhere. The Chignik managers noted in a September report that there wasn’t much harvest opportunity in June and July because of the low run.

“It is not appropriate to compare sockeye salmon harvest this year to recent averages due to the low participation and lack of harvest opportunity in June and much of July,” the managers wrote.

The same is true for Cook Inlet; the commercial harvest is exceptionally low this year, with the drift fishery harvest coming in at about 849,150 sockeye, much less than the average in the last decade. Setnet harvest was low, too, in part because the setnet fishery experienced one of the earliest closures in its history in mid-July due to the failure of the Kenai River late-run king salmon harvest.

There were plenty of sockeye — the end-season estimate of 2.4 million escapement into the Kenai is the highest since 1987 — but the lack of kings led to fishing restrictions. Managers noted that participation in the drift fishery was lower than average, too.

In the Yukon River, the chum salmon run completely failed. Both the fall chum and the coho runs in the Yukon are the lowest on record, according to an Oct. 1 announcement from Fish and Game. For comparison, the normal historical run size is about 870,000 fish; as of Oct. 1, Fish and Game estimated the run at 102,000. Fish and Game estimates the coho run at 37,000 fish compared to its historical normal of 240,000. The chum run didn’t meet the threshold to allow any kind of fishing, and may not meet the Canadian treaty requirement.

Subsistence fishing in the area relies on chum salmon, and managers plan to relax some of the requirements after Oct. 1 for the Lower Yukon, even though the escapement didn’t meet the requirement for any kind of fishing.

“Preliminary data from assessment projects indicated that fall chum and coho salmon had the smallest fish lengths observed in their respective datasets,” the announcement said. “Subsistence fishing restrictions are being relaxed starting in the Lower Yukon Area on October 1 and moving upriver once the tail end of the salmon run has passed a subdistrict.”

Kotzebue Sound’s season fell short as well, plagued by poor salmon returns and increasing restrictions in July and August. The final harvest estimate of 96,492 chum salmon was only about 64 percent of the 2020 harvest, and was the lowest since 2007. Like Bristol Bay, chums were also smaller, with an average weight of 7.4 pounds per salmon. There are only five years in the history of the Kotzebue Sound commercial fishery when the average weight was below 8 pounds, according to Fish and Game.

The lack of fishing opportunity and thin harvests led the three buyers — Copper River Seafoods, Pacific Star Seafoods and Arctic Circle Wild Salmon — to say they would withdraw by mid-August, though the season didn’t end until Aug. 31. The season summary, released Sept. 23, said the department then opened some additional fishing time in the last week. Participation was low, though catch per unit of effort was similar to 2020.

“Throughout most of the season, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) was similar to 2020 but, for most of the time this year, about 25% fewer permit holders were fishing,” the summary states. “During the last week of fishing, the CPUE was double the previous year with nearly the same amount of permit holders fishing.”

In total, managers estimate the ex-vessel value for Kotzebue Sound at $332,064, which is less than half of the historical average value of the fishery, according to Fish and Game.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

10/05/2021 - 3:24pm