December 01, 2021

­Biggest ever Brist­­ol Bay run in 2022? Biologists say yes, by a long shot

When summer fishing is over, Bristol Bay fishermen fan out across the country to their offseason homes. Many live in Alaska and Washington State, but the offseason diaspora spans the country from coast to coast and corner to corner. No matter where fishermen are or what their winter projects might be, in late November their collective attention focuses on one thing: the forecast for the next season. This fall’s forecast touched off a buzz amongst the fleet like few others. Biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) predict a return of 73.4 million sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, which would be the biggest run ever, and by a relatively large margin. 

A group of Bristol Bay boats tied up pre-season, where discussion of projections and plans for the upcoming season are in
full swing.

 Historical perspective on a massive forecast

Sockeye salmon runs in Bristol Bay over the past few years have been, in short, wildly abundant. Biologists have been tabulating the return of salmon in Bristol Bay since the 1880s, and last season’s total run of 66.1 million sockeye salmon was the biggest ever recorded. The previous record? That came just two years earlier, in 2018, when 62.9 million sockeye surged into the region’s five major river systems. The fishery has not dipped below the 50 million sockeye mark for six straight seasons and it now appears poised the break the 70 million barrier. 

A quick shot of a salmon-filled net off the back of FV Ava Jane as the season ramps up to peak season.

As detailed in our last blog post, biologists believe the large runs are driven in part by warmer water temperatures that seem to suit the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. But even amidst the numbers put up in the Bay since 2014, the upcoming season, if it holds to the prediction, would stand out as a statistical anomaly. A run of over 73 million sockeye would outstrip the most recent 10-year average of 52.09 salmon by 44 percent. Going further back gives us even more perspective. Next season’s forecast is more than double the average of 35.73 million sockeye salmon from 1962 to 2021. 

The catch might be even more historic. Despite last season’s record-setting run, wind, waves, and driving rain complicated fishermen’s efforts, keeping the catch at around 42 million sockeye salmon. That’s a big number, obviously, but this season ADFG predicts a harvestable surplus of 60 million sockeye. How does that stack up? Well, if fishermen can get all of them, it would be 75 percent higher than the most recent of average of over 34 million fish, and a whopping 170 percent greater than the average since 1962. And it could be bigger still. With this new regime of bigger runs, ADFG’s forecasts have come in low compared to final run totals, to the tune of 22 percent for the past five or six seasons, according to Greg Buck, an ADFG biologist who works on the forecasts. 

Deckhand Zach inspecting a net full of sockeye.

Last year, for example, the ADFG prediction was 32 percent below the actual run. You can bet a few of our fishermen are running the numbers on what 32 percent more than 73 million might be (hint: it’s not far from 100 million), and many will be looking at the upper end of the error range of the ADFG forecast, which puts it’s range from 61 to 89.54 million sockeye. 

However, Buck said for this forecast he and colleagues embraced models that showed a huge run, and thinks this season’s forecast will be closer to the final run tally than years’ past.  

“This year I was kind of betting like it was someone else’s paycheck. We seemed to be missing something the last couple years so I’m comfortable with it,” Buck said. 

He added that ADFG uses a similar methodology to the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) from the University of Washington. The two work independently and came up in same ballpark, with FRI predicting around 71 million sockeye.

It’s safe to say our fishermen will hope the forecasts are correct, and they’ll be thrilled if biologists managed to lowball again like they have been in past seasons. 

 Breakdown by districts

 One of the most important decisions for our fishermen will make during the season is choosing which of the major four districts they will fish in. The decision is the subject of endless discussion and handwringing, and rightfully so—a bad call can cost a fishing business hundreds of thousands of dollars. To make matters more stressful, if skippers want to switch districts midseason, that usually means they will be shut down for 48 hours, a potentially costly prospect in a fishery where the peak of the season can be compressed to as little as 10 days. So fishermen will be parsing the district by district rundown. Ideally, all districts will get fish, and fishermen can spread out amongst them. This season’s forecast looks pretty good on the distribution front. The Nushagak River, a beneficiary of the the larger runs, looks to lead the charge again this season with 29.48 million sockeye salmon. The Naknek-Kvichak District will attract a good percentage of boats as well with a predicted run of 20.68 million sockeye. Egegik is expected to get nearly 16 million sockeye, with Ugashik at 6.1 million and Togiak at 1.15 million sockeye. 

Captain Steve of FV Ava Jane cruising through the Naknek/Kvichak District in search of where to set their drift net next.

 Do bigger runs means smaller fish?

This gets a bit complicated. ADFG’s summary after last season noted that average weight of the fish harvested was around 4.7 pounds, a pound lighter than the most recent 20-year average. Many thought this meant Bristol Bay fish were getting smaller, but biologists say they are younger, an important distinction. 

“You look at individual age classes and they don’t look particularly small for their age, but there’s been a big shift in the age composition for some of these rivers,” Buck said.

Biologists classify returning salmon by the number of years they spent in freshwater followed by the number of years they spent in the ocean. A 1.2 fish, for example, spent one year in freshwater and two in the ocean, and it’s these 1.2s—a young returning fish—that are driving many of the recent runs.

“The last couple years have been driven by the explosion of 1.2 fish in the Wood River and Nushagak and, last year, in Naknek. These systems where you don’t really expect to see two-ocean fish have just rocketed off the charts,” Buck said. 

Last season, 1.2 age class made up 60 percent of the total run. The good news from this forecast is that 1.3 age class fish are set to make 47 percent of the run, with 1.2s making up the bulk of the rest of the run at 41 percent. 

A shot of the Bay from writer Brian Hagenbuch's time spent commercial fishing. 

Story by Brian Hagenbuch, contributing writer of Pride of Bristol Bay and a Bristol Bay Fishermen.

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