This week’s news that the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery is poised to set yet another record is a reminder of the remarkable fisheries management that has helped keep the run so healthy.
The University of Washington Fisheries Research Institute released its 2022 sockeye salmon forecast Monday, an amazingly accurate forecast over the years, projecting 71.2 million sockeye will return to the Bristol Bay watershed next year.
Michael Jackson is a Bristol Bay fisherman and the president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA).
It is a stunning figure: 38.1 percent higher than the recent 10-year average and 60.3 percent higher than the recent 20-year average.
If the 2022 projection comes to pass, it will mean a commercial harvest of 52.4 million sockeye weighing an estimated 252.4 million pounds.
Bristol Bay set a record in 2021 with 66 million fish returning (sockeye, like all Pacific salmon, are anadromous, which means they are spawned in freshwater, mature in the sea and return to the streams where they were born).
The number of fish returning has averaged more than 60 million fish over the last six years. Where else on the planet can you find a fishery that is setting historical run records? Nowhere except Bristol Bay. But this has not always been the case.
After watching runs decline from an average of 22 million fish to 10 million fish from 1919 to the mid 1940s, the University of Washington Fisheries Research Institute was contracted by the fishing industry to create the Alaska Salmon Program to rebuild failing runs and create a more sustainable fishery.
The first permanent structure was built in 1947 in Bristol Bay on Lake Aleknagik in the Wood River system. Since then, the Fisheries Research Institute has built two additional sites on the Wood River system as well as two sites on Lake Iliamna in the Kvichak system. The Fisheries Research Institute maintains one other research site located outside of Bristol Bay on Chignik Lake.
The research done at these locations share one thing in common: pristine habitat. The Bristol Bay watershed provides an absolutely perfect ecosystem with enough diversity throughout the river systems to provide a safety net of sorts. If one stream under-performs one season, another stream nearby picks up the slack and provides ideal spawning habitat. This diversity makes Bristol Bay the crown jewel of sustainable salmon fisheries in Alaska.
As a long-time Bristol Bay fishermen, I and so many others have been beneficiaries of phenomenal resource. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet and spend time with some of the people whose expertise helps keep this resource sustainable.
Recently, I made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of returning sockeye salmon: the Wood River. To get to the heart of the spawning grounds isn’t easy, and we scraped our way through rapidly shallowing water in a 14-foot skiff, dodging leaves, branches and mosquitoes to reach what’s known as Nerka Camp.
I was hosted there by University of Washington researchers, including Ray Hilborn, Daniel Schindler, Curry Cunningham, Chris Boatright (who calls the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run “the greatest migration on earth”), Conner Morang, and other members of the Fisheries Research Institute team whose job is to provide a pre-season forecast of overall strength of the sockeye salmon run, as well as age-class and run distribution by district.
This is no small task. There are five different districts fish return to: Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik, Ugashik, Nushagak, and Togiak.
The Fisheries Research Institute forecast is the gold standard around which processors, fishermen and Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) district managers plan their season.
Processors use the forecast to gauge how much material and personnel they will need to process the harvest. Fishermen use the forecast to create a game plan for which district to fish, and, based on year-class, what size nets they will need to be most effective.
ADFG district managers use this forecast, as well as in-season run data provided by the Port Moller Test fishery, to better manage the fishery.
Sitting in Nerka Camp, surrounded by graphs, field books and otolith samples (the ear bones of fish, which are just one of the metrics used to understand fish age and behavior), I am struck by the level of professionalism needed to perform such a critically important job in a technology challenged environment. Cell service? Nope. Internet? Satellite only, and underwhelming at best. Power is provided by a diesel generator with an impressive oil leak.
So why do these scientists go out into the field day after day, wading through bear-infested streams, to diligently count fish?
Quite simply, it is the quality of individuals, their attitude, and their commitment to science. That is what helps drive the success of this incredible management.
PhD candidates such as Katie McElroy and Jackie Carter mentor newer researchers such as Grace Henry and Chelsea Doyle, replicating the same success found in the diversity of the habitat with the diversity in personnel.
You’re not going to see their names in the headlines, they’re not going to make noise at meetings and they won't get into flame wars on Twitter.
These are the unsung heroes of Bristol Bay’s sustainability story, and without their quiet dedication and extreme professionalism in the harshest of conditions, keeping stewardship of these amazing fish and the economy they support wouldn’t be possible.