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Prized Bristol Bay fishery on track as salmon season wanes

Alex DeMarban
flickr / echoforsberg

The number of fish returning to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery has fallen sharply in at least one major river, but state officials say that overall Bristol Bay is on track for a close-to-average year.  

The number of sockeye nosing into the Nushagak River, one of several feeding into the famed Southwest Alaska bay, is down sharply -- so much so that fishermen have traveled to more productive drainages elsewhere in the bay, said Tim Sands, a state biologist for the bay's western side.

But the slowdown is to be expected, he said. "We have had several years in a row of absolutely spectacular runs. We're just due for a lower run," he said.  

Over an eight-year stretch starting in 2003, the Nushagak River saw its three strongest sockeye runs in some 125 years of fishing. The bounty year was 2006, when commercial fishermen harvested 11 million sockeye from a total Nushagak run of 15 million, Sands said.

This year, fishermen in the Nushagak district will be lucky to catch 3 million fish, he said. "It's not what people had hoped for, but fishermen can move to other places and still make a season out of it," he said.

That's the beauty of Bristol Bay, said Dan Gray, state Fish and Game management coordinator for the bay. Fishing might slow in one area but pick up in others, he said.

The bay is considered the world's most valuable wild sockeye fishery, producing about half the world's supply of the tasty, protein-rich fish, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of late, the region has been in the spotlight due to the Pebble open-pit mining prospect at the headwaters of the bay's two largest river basins, the Nushagak and Kvichak drainages. Many fear efforts to extract gold, copper, and molybdenum will pollute the fishery. Dan Rather Reports plans to wade into that debate Tuesday evening.

While the Nushagak River has pulled down the bay's west-side numbers, salmon returns are slightly up on the eastern side of the bay, home to rivers such as the Egegik and Kvichak, said Gray.

That will help bring the bay close to an average year, he said. Fish and Game had estimated the sockeye run at 30 to 32 million fish, and it looks like that estimate will be met, he said.

As of Monday, 23.9 million fish had returned to all Bristol Bay rivers, and the total catch stood at 17.3 million. The runs are tapering off, but it looks like 2012 will resemble 2011, when 30.3 million sockeye returned to the bay and 22 million of those were caught, according to the Homer News.

Also on track are the department's escapement goals for the number of Bristol Bay red and king salmon, said Gray.

As of Sunday, Fish and Game reported about 6.2 million sockeyes had "escaped" fishermen's nets, meaning they have the chance to return to spawning grounds to reproduce.

As for kings, Fish and Game wants to see 75,000 kings returning to the Nushagak River, the primary Bristol Bay spawning grounds for the largest species of salmon. Through July 6, a sonar some 37 miles upstream from the river's mouth counted 56,861 kings -- considerably more than the 45,591 counted on the same date last year.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com