After a record-breaking frenzy, Bristol Bay hopes to settle into a sweet spot for 2023
Nearly four months after the end of a historic season in Bristol Bay, many of our hardworking fishermen are still nursing sore hands and backs as they peruse the recently released forecast numbers for 2023. Both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) and the University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institution (FRI) put the 2023 run forecast around 50 million fish, with a harvestable surplus of between 35 and 40 million sockeye.
Fishermen will likely engage in a bit of hand wringing and perhaps some grumbling about a perceived sparse run, but these negative sentiments are little more than recency bias provoked by an unprecedented string of super runs. A run of fifty million fish is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, ADFG has a table categorizing run sizes, and 42 to 52 million fish is labeled “strong”. It’s just that our fishermen and customers have been a little spoiled since 2014, when the fishery has not dropped below 50 million fish.
Last Year’s Monster Run
Biologists predicted 2022 would be the largest run ever in 137 years of commercial fishing salmon fishing in the Bay, and they were correct. Last season’s bonkers run broke every record in the long history of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.
The final ADFG report put the total salmon catch at a colossal 78 million fish, but Daniel Schindler, a biologist and professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, said Bristol Bay fish caught on Alaska’s south Peninsula bumped the final tally to around 82 million fish. 82 million! I covered the historic scope of these recent huge runs in a post last year, but a quick recap: The Bay eclipsed 60 million fish for the fist time ever in 2018 with a run of 62.9 salmon. Three years later the fishery broke the record again when 66.1 million fish came up the rivers. The average over the past ten years now sits well over 55 million fish, dwarfing the average from 1962 to 2021, which is shy of 36 million.
Perhaps even more impressive than the run was the fact that fishermen managed to scoop up over 60 million fish, crushing the previous record harvest of 44.3 million sockeye in 1995. Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), said the massive run and harvest were made possible by generations of proper management in a unique ecosystem.
“We caught just a shade over 300 million pounds of fish. First of all, it’s a testament to sustainability and the habitat there to have a run of this size 137 years after commercial fishing started in Bristol Bay. You look at the ebbs and flows of fisheries elsewhere, and our hats are off to the fishery managers, the processors, the fishermen, the state of Alaska, everyone throughout the decades that’s had a hand in preserving this fishery. Overall, they’ve really held up their end of the bargain, and that’s not something you can say about every fishery or every resource,” Wink said.
What To Expect Next Season
Last season yielded a huge number of 3-ocean sockeye, large fish that have spent three years in salt water and offer up thick, deep red fillets that can feed an entire family, sometimes with leftovers. Because of high numbers across the board, Schindler pointed out that there were plenty of 2-ocean fish in 2022 as well, which means the fat, oily 3s should return again in force this summer.
“There was a huge plug of 3-ocean fish last season, but we still got around 40 million 2-ocean fish, which is part of what’s driving the good forecast for this upcoming season,” Schindler said.
And a bit of straight talk: While a harvest of 60 million fish is good for everyone, fishermen and consumers alike, it does not come without difficulty for the industry. Bristol Bay’s processors scrambled to find workers to handle the unprecedented volumes and many sent fish to other plants around Alaska, leaving them shorthanded for tenders, the boats that transport the salmon from fishing boats to processing plants. Fishermen themselves will rarely complain when their nets continually light up with the splashes of fat, powerful sockeye, but the reality is that getting 60 million fish out of the water in a short time is grueling and frenetic.
Wink said fishermen and processors combined to pull off the task but added that such an unprecedented catch “was never going to be smooth”.
Which brings us to next season: The lower forecast will still provide plenty of fish for the market, and the forecast has the run spread fairly evenly through the fishery’s four major districts. These factors, combined with a healthy projected quota of older, larger fish, should allow fishermen to settle into a sweet spot, pulling in lots big, tasty fish without running themselves ragged.
“Stability is not something you can count in a wild fishery. Ideally what you want is to have roughly the same amount of fish coming back every year. These wild fluctuations really make it tough. If the run does come in as forecast next year, it feels like that’s a very good spot for us to be at this time,” Wink said.
Story by Brian Hagenbuch, contributing writer of Pride of Bristol Bay and a Bristol Bay Fishermen.