Bristol Bay breaks daily harvest record for 2nd year running

As its season ramps up to its peak, Bristol Bay is already breaking single-day harvest records for sockeye salmon.

Fishermen in the Nushagak district harvested more than 2.4 million sockeye in a single day on June 30 — smashing the record from last year by more than 600,000 fish. It’s the most sockeye harvested in a single day in the district in its 130-year history, according to Tim Sands, the area management biologist for the west side of the Bay for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“With the information we have now, we’re on track for the big forecast,” he said. “Whether we continue to stay on track the next several days remains to be seen. “

As of Saturday, there has been a total run of 13 million in the Nushagak already, “and I don’t think we’re halfway done,” Sands said.

So far, an estimated 29 million sockeye have returned to the various stream systems across Bristol Bay. The Nushagak district tends to be the largest for participation, with 880 permits registered to fish there as of Monday. That’s more than double the next largest district, Egegik, which has 336 permits registered as of Monday. The large harvests are on track with the forecast this year — a total run of about 75 million fish, the largest in Bristol Bay’s history.

Despite the increased numbers, the fleet and industry have been able to handle it so far, Sands said. Based on simple math on what was harvested by the drift gillnet fleet, that’s about 3,300 fish per boat on June 30, when they broke the record. Harvests have ramped back down, hitting 892,000 on Saturday and rebounding to a little over 1 million on Sunday.

It’s still early in the Bristol Bay season, but samples of fish harvested so far are showing that the fish are smaller than the long-term average again. Stacy Vega, a biologist with Fish and Game in King Salmon, said the average is about 4.9 pounds so far. The predominant age class are 5-year-old fish, which is a year older than the leading age class last year so far, she said.

“We’re seeing more of those than forecasted certainly, but the Nushagak is a big component of that,” she said. “As far as how that relates to fish size, obviously a 3-ocean fish is bigger than a 2-ocean fish. Of weights and lengths at age, they’re smaller than average. That’s true with every age class we see. The weight and length at age is smaller than historical averages.”

The managers extended fishing time last week to account for high winds making fishing conditions difficult for shore-based setnetters, Sands said.

Despite the high temperatures and dry conditions elsewhere in the state, he said the temperatures have stayed low and the area has more snowpack than it did during the last hot year in 2019, when high stream temperatures disrupted salmon migration, so the managers aren’t as concerned about that so far.

While the total value of the harvest isn’t determined until after the season, when post-season price adjustments are paid to fishermen, harvesters for Peter Pan Seafoods are receiving a base price of $1.15 per pound at the dock. The processor announced an initial base price of $1 in mid-June, then upped it to $1.15 last week.

Prince William Sound’s harvests are also climbing, with the sockeye run strengthening in the Copper River and chum harvests climbing. Managers wrote in a July 1 update that the sockeye escapement is above the forecast, with 623,202 fish counted so far. Fishermen have harvested 455,000 sockeye so far in the Copper River District, over halfway to the forecasted harvest of 716,000 sockeye for the season. That’s significantly below the recent 10-year average for the area, though, which would be just over 1 million sockeye.

Chum harvests are also up from 2021 in the area, with 1.175 million chum harvested so far. That’s 34% more than what were harvested by the same date last year, according to a market analysis from the McKinley Research Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institution.

However, chum harvests are overall down from last year, mostly due to shortfalls in the Alaska Peninsula and Southeast so far. The Alaska Peninsula has seen a boom of chum salmon in the last five years, but the current harvest is on track with the 10-year average, according to Fish and Game. Chum salmon overall harvests have been low in Southeast so far.

Upper Cook Inlet’s season is nearly fully underway, with all the gear types set to open in the coming week. The drift gillnet fleet has been in the water for a few weeks, and the northern district has been in since late May, but the Upper Subdistrict setnets — the ones along the beaches from Kasilof up to Nikiski — are only partially open. Setnetters in the Kenai section won’t open until July 8. Even when they do, due to tightened restrictions on king salmon fishing in the Kenai River, they’re limited to 24 total hours of fishing per week, which usually translates to two 12-hour fishing periods, issued by emergency order only.

Fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet have harvested a total of 71,221 so far, most of which are sockeye. The drift fleet so far is lagging behind the setnetters, though the drift fleet tends to be the dominant harvester later in the year. The Kenai River run, which is the largest, is also just kicking off, with about 15,000 salmon having been counted on the sonar since it started counts on July 1.

Kodiak fishermen are on target for average harvests of sockeye so far, according to Fish and Game. As of June 30, they’ve harvested 438,000 sockeye; they’ve also harvested 88,000 chum, which is below average. Nearby on the Alaska Peninsula, Chignik has not had any openers yet due to low early sockeye salmon returns.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

07/11/2022 - 1:59pm