Bristol Bay sockeye fishery revs up for summer season
Early? Small? Two bucks a pound? What about that Fraser River? Reality TV? These are some of the questions on the minds of the Bristol Bay fishing industry, which is quickly pouring back into the hub towns of Dillingham and Naknek. Every day more processing plant workers arrive, boats go in the water, and one by one, kings and sockeye hit subsistence nets up and down the beaches and rivers.
The world's greatest sockeye fishery is spinning up for an exciting year, which officially opens on June 1, and could actually start not long after that.
The sockeye run
The Department of Fish and Game has forecasted a total run of 26.58 million sockeye to Bristol Bay's rivers in 2014. Of that, there is a potential total harvest of 16.86 million fish. "That is a little low for us," said Norm Van Vactor, who has 35 years of experience in the Bristol Bay industry, and now serves as President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation in Dillingham. "We have our peaks and valleys, and hopefully we're in a little valley here with nowhere to go but up." Van Vactor says low volume can translate to a higher price, but that's no guarantee. More on that later.
An early ice-out and melt-off, combined with a month straight of warm and sunny weather, has many convinced the run will come early. Word of king salmon in Koliganek and sockeye in Aleknagik has only added to the speculation. Last year's run was about eight days earlier than the average, and some set and drift fishermen were not ready for it. Most seem poised to not repeat that mistake.
How early could the run be? Get this: Icicle Seafoods will have a tender buying fish in Egegik on June 2, though that may be out of an abundance of caution.
"We'll be there to support our guys," said Icicle's Warner Lew. "We don't know that the fish will be there, but it sounds like the fleet will be, so we'll be ready for their sake," he said.
A date that early can stir up some trepidation with fisherman, even cause a bit of a "flurry in the fleet" said one, but there may be no real need to panic. Some experts say there is more to the science of the salmon run than meets the average eye. For instance, it may be more important how quickly the water temperature warms up, rather than the actual temperature itself.
"While this has clearly been a warm winter and spring, we have seen conditions this warm before," said Daniel Schindler, a professor of Aquatic and Fishery Science at the University of Washington. Schindler helps run UW's Fisheries Research Institute in Bristol Bay, which has data on the sockeye runs dating back to 1946. "Surprisingly, spring warming has little to no effect on run timing," he said. "We always think it should but the data suggest the effects are subtle at best."
Egegik and Ugashik
Manager Paul Salomone said he is among those very curious to see how the early catches go. "There's a lot of talk about early run timing this year, and the water temperatures are already there," he said. "People are a little twitchy about last year, and there's a lot of folks who'll be ready early, so I'm looking to see what kind of volume actually shows up from the first catches."
The forecasted run to the Egegik River is 4.65 million sockeye, with an escapement goal of 800,000 - 1.4 million. That leaves a potential harvest of 3.36 million sockeye. Some fishermen had a terrific start to last year's season by fishing the front end in Egegik, and many will likely repeat that effort this year.
The run to the Ugashik River is forecasted to be 1.81 million fish, and Salomone needs to get between 500,000 and 1.2 million sockeye in the river. That leaves only about 890,000 sockeye available for harvest, a "fairly small" forecast that is likely to lead to "conservative" management according to the department outlook.
Fishing in both districts open June 2, with Egegik on a three day per week schedule, and Ugashik open Monday to Friday, until June 13. The counting tower on the Egegik River is scheduled to be counting by June 13, and Salomone expects the tower on the Ugashik River to be counting by June 27.
Bristol Bay's largest sockeye district welcomes a new manager this year. Travis Elison will replace Slim Morstad, who officially retires May 31. However, Morstad is expected to be around for most of the season to help Elison transition into the role.
"I'll be lucky to have him here to train me," said Elison, citing Morstad's experience and success in the Bay. Elison comes to the position from four years managing fishing on the Kuskokwim River, and has been with the department since 2006.
The total forecasted run to the district is 10.51 million sockeye, split 5.3 million to the Kvichak, 3.49 million to the Naknek, and 1.72 million to the Alagnak. The potential harvest is 5.48 million sockeye.
"The forecast run is a little below average, but certainly is a lot better than was seen back in the early 2000's," said Elison. "We're projecting enough sockeye for the Kvichak that we can avoid the special harvest area. But it is a low enough number that we're going to be cautious."
Elison said there should be enough sockeye to meet the Kvichak escapement goal of 2.65 million, but not by a wide margin. "So we'll probably stick to the Naknek section at least for the early part of the season, until we see how the run develops."
The early fishing effort will be managed differently this year. In the past, the fishing was open around June 16 from 9 a.m. Monday through 9 a.m. the following Friday.
But that schedule created some problems, according to Elison, the main one being a difficult to enforce line fishery. "Most of the fish were being caught at the line, it was tough for people to play by the rules, and the set netters really didn't catch much," he said.
Instead, during that week, the department will open the drift fleet during the 7-foot tides on a series of 6-8 hour openers beginning 3:30 p.m. Monday June 16, and ending on a six hour period that closes at 1:00 a.m. Friday June 20.
"That should help get some fish into the district, past the line, and it'll also make it easier for troopers to enforce, because they won't have to watch the line 24 hours a day."
The forecasted sockeye return to the Nushagak River district is 8.8 million fish, with an above average potential harvest of 6.6 million sockeye. Most of those sockeye are heading to the Wood River. Foremost on the mind of district manager Tim Sands is how to harvest those fish and make the escapement goal for the much smaller return to the Nushagak River.
The Wood River sockeye are predominantly smaller age class 1:2 fish, so a restricted mesh size of 4.75" or less is likely to be imposed. There is also the distinct possibility that the fleet will find itself battling it out inside the Wood River Special Harvest Area.
"Unfortunately, that does look likely to me this year," said Sands, who understands the problems that creates for a lot of people. But there may be no way around it. "Based on the forecast, we want to harvest 5.5 million Wood River fish, and we want to harvest 500,000 Nushagak fish. In other words, we need to catch Wood River fish for every one Nushagak River fish. To do that while fishing in the commercial district is going to be difficult, and that's compounded by the fact that those Wood River fish are smaller."
Sands said he will not start with the restricted mesh size, but will likely wait a few days to allow for the 36-48 hour sockeye travel time to the Nushagak River sonar counting site near Portage Creek. Depending on the numbers, Sands may give 24 hour notice and then impose the restricted gear size.
"And if we still fall behind the Nushagak escapement curve, then we're going into the Wood River," he said.
New regulations for that special harvest area give the drift net fleet three openings to every one for the set netters, and the set net fleet is expected to pull all gear and vessels entirely outside of the line when not fishing.
Last year, a few fisherman who were ready for it were afforded one directed opener for Chinook salmon in the Nushagak District, which proved lucrative for some. Sands said he will wait and see how the run looks before suggesting whether or not that opportunity will be afforded again this year. "We are optimistic that there will be enough surplus Chinook for an opener, but I'm not willing to step out on that limb preseason," he said.
The sonar site on the Nushagak River will continue counting pink and silver salmon, and the district will remain open for fishing as the counts allow.
As for the early timing of the run, Sands has his own advice to offer. "Watch the other fisheries around the state, and see how they're looking," he said. "Copper River was a few days early, but nothing extraordinary. I would key on those fisheries, for what it's worth."
The Nushagak River sonar site will begin counting on June 6, the Wood River tower on June 12, and the Igushik River tower on June 17.
The Togiak River sockeye salmon run is forecasted to be 720,000 fish, up a bit from last year. The department estimates that 520,000 sockeye will be available for commercial harvest. Permit holders who fish any other district in Bristol Bay will not be allowed to fish in Togiak until July 27. The department may restrict fishing time and mesh size to protect the river's Chinook return, which has been considered below average for several years.
After receiving a good price for sockeye last year, many fishermen are hopeful to return to that nice round number of $2 per pound for 2014. The word on the street is that last year's catch sold out quickly, and the markets are hungry for more wild-caught Alaskan sockeye.
Norm Van Vactor is among those who are optimistic, albeit cautiously, about the economics of this season. "I haven't seen conditions better than this in a long, long time," he said, pointing to low inventories and solid domestic and international markets.
But he is not ready to speculate on the $2 per pound. And there's one big, really big reason why: the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Following an incredible record return of 30 million sockeye in 2010, managers there are estimating a run this year of between 7.3 million on the low end, and up to 72.5 million sockeye on the high end. A run of that magnitude would not only dwarf Bristol Bay, and unseat it (at least temporarily) as the world's largest sockeye producer, but could drive the market price down considerably.
"If you're a major buyer, you have to pay attention to a run like that," said Van Vactor. "It will definitely play in, and we're not going to know how big of a run it is until probably mid to late August."
Other than competition from the mighty Fraser, many of the market indicators look favorable for a good return on Bristol Bay product. Van Vactor believes the entry of the fishermen-owned Silver Bay Seafoods will add some needed competition and innovation. Some of the Bay's top fishermen have been lured over to Silver Bay, which christened its new Naknek facility with what was apparently a successful test run during the Togiak herring season.
"That is one of, if not the nicest seafood processing facility on the West Coast of the United States," said Van Vactor. "They have an incredible daily processing potential, and overnight have become a big player in this fishery."
Weeks, hopefully not days, away from the start of the fishery, Van Vactor is both excited and optimistic as he watches from his new role at BBEDC. "It's a really good time to be in the wild salmon business," he said.