Fishermen yearning to reel in Alaska’s prized king salmon continue to face dismal returns across much of the state. Yet the biggest king salmon fishery in Bristol Bay continues to buck the trend as the Nushagak River completes a three-year king rebound unmatched by any other major Alaska waterway.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has counted more than 110,000 kings swimming upstream this year -- more than the Kenai River, more than the Kuskokwim River, and more than the much-larger Yukon. In 2010, the Nushagak River saw its worse salmon king run ever, with about 36,000 kings reaching the river.
But this summer, much like last, the Nushagak is a bright spot for Alaska king salmon, though state biologists don't know why the river is such an exception to the larger trend.
More than 100,000 kings
As of late July, Fish and Game’s sonar counted 113,743 kings in the Nushagak, which has a sustainable escapement goal of 55,000 to 120,000 fish. The exceptional return delights guides who make their living catering to eager anglers -- a contrast to their Kenai River counterparts, whose businesses have cratered amid terrible king returns and barely attained escapement goals achieved only by clamping down on both sport anglers and commercial fishermen who sometimes catch kings while pursuing red salmon. In good years, the Kenai can get as many as 60,000 kings  returning to its waters in July and August. This year will see less than a third of that number.
Last year’s escapement of 174,085 on the Nushagak was even larger than this year, said Craig Schwanke, assistant area management biologist in Bristol Bay. But this season, the run started slowing down around July 10, a little earlier than a year ago.
“Despite a lower count than last year, 2013 is still considered a very good king run near the upper end of the escapement goal range,” Schwanke said by email. The river's success may deepen the mystery of Alaska's king salmon woes because Fish and Game "doesn’t know why the Nushagak king runs have been strong the past couple of years compared to other areas of the state.”
Next year looks promising, too
Three seasons ago, it looked as though king runs across the state had hit bottom after several years of declines, Matt Miller, a regional fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Sport Fish, told Alaska Dispatch in a previous interview. In 2011, things started looking up and it was thought that the trend would continue in 2012. Instead, low returns linger in many waterways.
But not all of them, and there's a good chance the Nushagak will have another good king run next year based on strong numbers of both young and old age classes during past seasons, Schwanke said. “But time will tell.”
The Nushagak's rebound could stem from several factors, such as the spawning success of adult kings, or the freshwater and saltwater survival rates of juvenile kings, Schwanke said.
Most fry are doomed . Various studies show that up to 96 percent of the young salmon born in Alaska streams never see the ocean. If even 10 percent of the king salmon eggs deposited in an Alaska stream live to become smolts, or young king salmon headed for the ocean, that survival rate would be considered phenomenal. Usually, the number of survivors is far less. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of king smolts make their way to saltwater each year.
The Nushagak-Mulchatna King Salmon Management Plan allocates the kings among sport, commercial and subsistence users, so it's rare to see a liberalized bag limit, even in years when more than 100,000 kings return to spawn, Schwanke said.
The state has dumped money into studying salmon, with some funds set aside for additional research on the Nushagak. Fish and Game hopes to solve the salmon mystery, but the answers so far are as slippery as a fish out of water.
Conact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com