Bristol Bay 2016 run taking shape

Jun 29, 2016

Naknek-Kvichak waiting patiently, a large fleet plugging away in the Nushagak, and genetics suggest Egegik and Ugashik might pop very soon. Here's a summary of some of our reporting this week.

Set netters Steven George and Hayden Petersen loading up with some catch in the Nushagak District this week.
Credit Greg Marxmiller

The largest sockeye salmon harvest in the world is taking shape in Bristol Bay, with fishermen closing in on the three million mark.

This graph, produced daily by the Univ. of Washington's Fisheries Research Institute, gives a snapshot how the returns are coming in to four of the districts. (6/28)
Credit courtesy Alaska Salmon Program

Audio transcript: The Department of Fish and Game predicts a total run to Bristol Bay this summer of 46.6 million fish. That’s down a bit from last year’s monster return, which is welcome: it should be better for the market value of the catch, and an amount of fish the processors can handle without putting their fleets on limits.

Fuel prices are down, and until the Brexit vote strengthened the dollar, most economic indicators suggested the fish price will go up. Last year the base price was a measly .50 cents a pound.

Copper River Seafoods took an the unusual step, for this fishery at least, of posting a price preseason for their fishermen. Vojtech Novak is the company's manager in Bristol Bay.

"You know, the owner of our company was a fisherman, and he feels like he's still a fisherman," Novak said. "His dream was always to know the price before going fishing, and we're trying to work on that and give our fishermen a price. Before they go fish, they know what they're getting."

The price offered was .75 cents a pound, with bonuses paid for bleeding and chilling, adding up to top quality sockeye shipped fresh paid out at $1.25 per pound.

In general, the Bay is feeling pretty good this season. Nushagak kings surged early, and will hit their escapement goal of 95,000 this week. The sockeye have been arriving in steadily building numbers almost everywhere. Just three years ago, the Bristol Bay run showed up near record early, and last year came near record late, so the fleet and processors have learned a few lessons about how tightly they can book their summer business plans.

The only place the sockeye haven’t showed, yet, is in the Naknek-Kvichak District, whose rivers are expecting to see fully half of this year’s return. That's where most of Novak's fleet fishes.

"It's a pretty nice vacation for us right now, nice weather, not so much fish," he says with a laugh Wednesday.

Trio of drifters in the Naknek River waiting for an opener.
Credit KDLG

It took an awfully long time for Naknek-Kvichak District to pop last year, but when it did, it was huge. F/V Odie skipper Lange Solberg said Friday that much of the fleet this year is relying on lessons learned then about sitting tight and waiting patiently.

"I think so, yeah. The mood seems still pretty upbeat, and I think everybody is expecting good things to come," Solberg said. "We're playing cribbage, and keeping an eye on international politics."

International politics like the Brexit vote last Friday, which jolted the currency markets and tamped down a little of the recent optimism.

"It matters because the strength of the dollar impacts how well people are able to sell seafood," said Gabe Dunham, the Marine Advisory Program agent in Bristol Bay. "If we look at the exchange rates between the euro and the dollar, given this recent shock, we're kind of at a similar place that we were about this time last year." 

Exchange rates are one factor, but with major problems in Chile and Norway farmed stocks, Bristol Bay is still hoping its hefty volume will find eager buyers worldwide.

A few of the up to 2000 walrus hauling out north of Pilot Point this summer.
Credit KDLG

Back to the fishing. While the run isn't yet hitting in Naknek-Kvichak, the Egegik and Ugashik Districts have been fishing steady for a week, and have so far had no problems with the new walrus haulout north of Pilot Point. Set netters at Igushik are off to one of their best starts ever.

Timothy and Victor Nick set net at Coffee Point near Dillingham, where the season has had a slow but steady start.
Credit KDLG

An unusually large portion of the fleet is fishing in the Nushagak District, where the catches have been modest, but for some boats it's better than nothing. Tim Sands is the Fish and Game area management biologist, and has been offering a good amount of early season opportunity.

"We're ahead on our escapements," Sands said in an interview Tuesday. "We're six days ahead for both the Nushagak and the Wood, so we're looking strong there. And I figured we should be somewhat aggressive on fishing because this flat calm weather won't last, and who knows what else can happen with a huge forecast Bay-wide."

The possibility exists that a change in weather will get Bristol Bay's inbound sockeye moving quickly toward their natal streams. Catches will go over a million, maybe over two million sockeye per day for the peak. And when that happens this year, there’s another milestone this fishery will reach. Bob King, the longtime news director at KDLG, is a fish historian and has been quietly crunching numbers over the years, waiting on the record to arrive.

"Since the inception of the canned salmon industry there in 1884, Bristol Bay fishermen have landed 1.99 billion salmon, 93 percent of which were sockeye. Fishermen will achieve the two-billion-salmon milestone when they catch another 9.5 million," he says. "It took 95 years for Bristol Bay to produce its first billion salmon. The two billionth salmon will come just 38 years after that."

There’s a good chance that salmon will be picked out of someone's net this weekend, or perhaps on the 4th of July.

Through Tuesday midnight, 2.3 million sockeye have been harvested, and the total run to Bristol Bay stands at 3.2 million. If the run shows up as predicted, another 43 million are on their way over the next two weeks.

Molly Dischner contributed to this report. Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org, or 907-842-5281.

Dillingham harbor with word of an opener.
Credit KDLG
Another useful chart from the Alaska Salmon Program, showing catch and escapement comparisons.
Credit Univ. of Washington F.R.I. Alaska Salmon Program