Bristol Bay can look forward to a regular season in 2017 after two years of hard work, if the forecast is to be believed.
Alaska’s largest sockeye run has blown past projections the last two years, but next year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts an average harvest.
“A total of 41.47 million sockeye salmon (range 31.20–51.73 million) are expected to return to Bristol Bay in 2017,” according to an ADFG report released Nov. 15. “This is virtually identical to the most recent 10-year average of Bristol Bay total runs (41.39) and 27 percent greater than the long-term mean of 32.76 million.”
For commercial fishermen, this means next year’s harvest will also be average, with a commercial harvest of 29 million.
“A Bristol Bay harvest of this size is 2 percent lower than the most recent 10-year harvest which has ranged from 15.43 million to 37.53 million, and 34 percent greater than the long-term harvest average of 20.52 million fish (1963 to present),” the report states.
The forecast predicts an average run and average harvest, but the last two years have put a stain on forecasting accuracy.
In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Bristol Bay sockeye run has returned in massive numbers past those predicted by ADFG. In 2016, commercial fishermen harvested 26 percent more than what the department predicted.
In 2015, ADFG predicted 14 percent less fish than what ended up returning. In 2014, fishermen caught 11 million more than forecasted.
Bristol Bay fishermen familiar with the region’s ups and downs expressed little surprise that the forecasts were off during the last two years of massive sockeye hauls. The history of ADFG Bristol Bay forecasting shows that the methods are usually off by a fair margin.
“Historically, sockeye salmon runs to Bristol Bay have been highly variable,” ADFG reported. “Forecasting future salmon returns is inherently difficult and uncertain. We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast.
“These methods have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole. Since 2001, our forecasts have, on average, under-forecast the run by 10 percent and have ranged from 44 percent below actual run in 2014 to 19 percent above actual run in 2011. Forecasted harvests have had a mean absolute percent error of 15 percent since 2011.”
Depending on the size of the actual harvest, the 2017 Bristol Bay run could either ease or intensify an ongoing pricing situation.
Ex-vessel prices for commercial fishermen have dropped while retail prices have remained largely the same due in part to a supply glut from the massive runs in 2014 and 2015. Processors still had stores of salmon products to unload when the large harvests came in, leading to a disparity in ex-vessel price versus retail prices.
In 2015, area fishermen received 50 cents per pound, half the average, though this price was later adjusted to 99 cents per pound in the postseason. In 2016, they received 76 cents per pound, and are still waiting to hear what the postseason adjustment will be.
DJ Summers can be reached at email@example.com.