Researchers watching sockeye sizes

Jul 6, 2016

Will 2016 be another year of small fish, or was 2015 just an anomaly? Early fish may be looking a little small, but it's too early to say for certain. (Are you getting tired of the too-early refrain yet?)

Wood River sockeye are pictured in this June 2016 photo.
Credit KDLG News

Alaska’s sockeye salmon came back shorter and lighter than usual last year. As sockeye runs return this summer, biologists have been keeping an eye on their size, tracking whether they'll be like last year - shorter and lighter than average - or back to their normal weights.

Longtime Bristol Bay fisherman John Bennett said that at least for the start of the Bristol Bay season, the sockeye in his net have been smaller than they used to be, just like last year.

"Everything's changed," he said in late June. "Even the size of the fish has changed, nothing's the same."

Fish and Game's Jack Erickson said on July 3 that's what he's seeing in the numbers, too.

"We’re still looking at smaller fish, similar to last year's numbers" Erickson said.

So far, Erickson said the three-ocean fish, those that have spent three years in saltwater before swimming back, are a little smaller even than last year. The fish that have spent just two years at sea are a little larger than 2015.

"And on average right now, from our very initial catches, it’s averaging about the same as last year for size," he said.

Fish size estimates come from samples taken at counting towers as well as in the commercial harvest. Although that data is available now, Erickson says it’s too early to draw very many other conclusions about the 2016 run, and the size info is far from final.

Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet also had small fish last year. But as the runs progress in those regions, they don't appear to be quite as small.

"Well this year in Prince William Sound, we saw fish originally coming in a little bit smaller," Erickson said. "But since the beginning of the season, the fish have gotten larger. I think we’ve put on an average of about half a pound We’ve seen an increase in the average size of sockeye. So that’s good news to see out in Prince William Sound/Copper River."

Erickson said the very first Cook Inlet fish have also been about half a pound larger than last year, too.

"So in those two areas we’re seeing some improvement," he said. "And hopefully we’ll see that larger size show up in Bristol Bay as well."