Bristol Bay lived up to its reputation for unpredictability as a bizarre late rush of sockeyes has surged into fishermen’s nets nearly a week past the historical peak, with enough still coming to potentially surpass the 20-year average harvest by several million fish.
“Things change,” said Chuck Brazil, assistant area biologist for Bristol Bay. “That’s why we manage the fishery day to day.”
After a lackluster beginning, Bristol Bay red salmon have roared to life well past their normal timing, with a July 14 total commercial harvest of just less than 23 million. The new outlook predicts the harvest will be around 30 million, which is still short of the initial forecast but far greater than the 20-year average harvest.
Processors warned against the “schizoid” nature of the area early in the season, and the notoriety has proven well-earned.
First, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast Alaska’s most valuable fishery to have a commercial harvest of 37.6 million fish, nearly 60 percent more than the 20-year average of 23.5 million. Then the preseason forecast for Bristol Bay’s Kvichak River run was adjusted downward 33 percent from a predicted harvest of 7.12 million sockeye to 4.7 million, bringing the official forecast for the entire bay down from 37.6 million.
Next, early season fish came in substantially underweight, which will offset the entire season’s average weight, according to biologists.
The historical midpoint of July 4 came and went with only 8.87 million fish harvested, less that half of what was caught by this time last year, and 35 percent less than the five-year average. All signs pointed to a Bristol Bay harvest of less than 20 million puny fish.
Finally, the sockeye have now returned in full vigor later than any comparably sized run. According to Brazil, only 1971 had seen this late a run, but the harvest of 15 million salmon was not even biologically analogous to 2015. The 2015 run is a historical anomaly.
“It’s definitely unusual to have this strong of a run this late in the season,” said Brazil. “If you really think about it, it’s very strange. We had the earliest run ever in 2013. Two years later it looks like we might have the latest.”
Unusual it may be, but Brazil said Fish and Game views fickleness as the only Bristol Bay trait worth counting on.
“I don’t know if we were really that surprised,” Brazil said.
Traditionally, the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery peaks on July 4, then tapers off over the next few weeks on the same slope as it built in the prior weeks. July 4 is the crucial 50 percent mark at which the overall strength of the commercial harvest will be more or less determined. Historically, the 50 percent mark of July 4 has proven remarkably accurate, according to Fish and Game management biologists.
Brazil believes if the run has a smooth, steady tail to the run timing’s bell curve, the harvest could still be as high as 30 million fish.
“If catch and escapements continue to be strong, I don’t see any reason we can’t achieve a 40-million inshore total run and a 30-million harvest,” said Brazil. “Hopefully it’s not going to truncate. That’s happened before. Right now the indications are that it will continue to be strong the next couple days and then taper off.”
Still, a 30-million sockeye harvest would do far more good that something less than the 20-year average, which was likely before the late comeback. Fishermen and biologists are holding out hope that the late sockeye strength will continue without a sudden nosedive in sockeye numbers. Brazil’s fear, a truncated run, would surprise him.
“I’ve seen a truncated run happen once,” said Brazil. “That’s the one thing about this fishery. You have to pay attention closely and manage it on a day by day basis.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s managerial power is lashed to its predictive power. In-season managers have to make sure the proper amount of escaped fish get to their spawning grounds further upriver.
Right now, Fish and Game management biologists said management options are more liberal to better sweep up all the fish.
“The commercial fishery is being managed to allow for harvest of fish surplus to escapement needs,” said Brazil.
DJ Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.