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Bristol Bay's sockeye season starts off strong

Hannah Heimbuch | Bristol Bay Times
The forecast for Bristol Bay this year is 26.03 million, with a range between 17.3 and 34.7 million sockeye. This is historically lower than average. So it's hard to tell whether these numbers are an indication of a very strong run or an early season, but either way there are fish here, the population is healthy and it's time to harvest. flickr / echoforsberg

With escapement numbers climbing, Bristol Bay fishing districts opened for drift and set gillnet gear for several periods again this week. In the Nushagak district, fishermen are already seeing daily double openings, which will likely continue the rest of the season, said area biologist Tim Sands with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"They're doing exceedingly well," Sands said. "We're way ahead of the historical curves. And we basically can fish very liberally."

By Monday, Wood River sockeye escapement had jumped to nearly 600,000 fish. In the Nushagak it had climbed to well over half a million. Cumulative catch was hovering near 1.2 million.

"We have basically all the escapement we need at this point," Sands said, adding that it's early for the escapement goals to already be met. It's usually early July before the Nushagak district reaches the lower boundary of its escapement needs, he said, but as of early this week, they were already there.

The forecast for Bristol Bay this year is 26.03 million, with a range between 17.3 and 34.7 million sockeye. This is historically lower than average.

So it's hard to tell whether these numbers are an indication of a very strong run or an early season, Sands said, but either way there are fish here, the population is healthy and it's time to harvest.

It's also not clear yet whether there will be a Wood River opening this year or not. It certainly won't be to protect low Nushagak River numbers since that population is coming in strong, Sands said. There is some language to allow for a Wood River opening if that river's escapement goes above 1.3 million, but that remains to be seen.

While Nushagak king escapement still needs to climb a bit, Sands said those numbers are very positive as well.

"It's top end of the curve there," Sands said. "It's not a done deal but it's looking very healthy at this point."

As of Monday the Naknek-Kvichak had a cumulative escapement for the Kvichak at 55,000 and 26,000 up the Naknek River. Catch total was closing in on 1 million.

That district had the strongest harvest during the 2012 season.

Cumulative escapement in Egegik was nearing 350,000 early in the week, while harvest numbers in that district climbed above 1.6 million sockeye. Cumulative catch in Ugashik was closing in on 1 million.

With salmon rolling into the region at the increasingly steady flood-rate that's made Bristol Bay famous, drift fishermen have begun to drop blue cards declaring their intended fishing district.

As of Tuesday morning, the majority of drift permits had been declared for the Nushagak district. By the time the 48 hour wait period passes they will total 345. Ugashik will be at 314 declared permit holders, 257 for the Naknek-Kvichak and 247 were registered for Egegik. Thirty permit holders have registered to fish in the smaller Togiak district. That makes for a total of 1,193 declared permits fishing on 980 vessels — 213 of those vessels carrying two permit holders and thus fishing an additional shackle of gear.

Total run estimates as of Monday had reached over 6 million, including harvest and escapement. More than 2 million of that has been recorded in Egegik, often a little earlier than other districts farther west and north.

Hannah Heimbuch is a reporter with the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this story first appeared. She can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.