Value of Bristol Bay salmon rises, even as the fish shrink

Boats tie up at Dillingham’s small boat harbor on Wednesday, with many waiting to be pulled from the water at high tide. (Photo by Austin Fast / KDLG)

2018 has been a year for the Bristol Bay record books as total sockeye run surpassed 61 million on Thursday, putting it just a half-million fish behind the largest run of 61.7 million in 1980.

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Bert Lewis oversees commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He’s impressed at the strength of the Nushagak district’s run and even at Bristol Bay’s east-side districts, which came in “late but solidly.”

“That stands out really statewide where sockeye runs have not been strong. I know that westward Kodiak area is meeting their goals, but with very little fishing opportunity. Cook Inlet right now is under restrictions,” Lewis said. “King salmon statewide are of concern with low returns, but meeting goals solidly in Bristol Bay.”

King salmon escapement was strong enough that nearly 100 anglers filled the Nushagak River this June for a new king derby, even as poor returns canceled a handful of derbies in southeast Alaska.

Lewis said the prevailing theory for Bristol Bay’s bounty is “the blob”  an unusually warm water mass that filled the northern Gulf of Alaska as this year’s returning fish migrated out to sea a few years back. It disrupted food webs that support the forage base that juvenile salmon feed on in waters across southeast Alaska and the north Gulf.

“The warm blob, this warm-water anomaly, was not present in the Bering Sea where those (Bristol Bay) fish came out, so that’s one possible supporting piece of evidence that we’re looking to that it was the 2015 outmigration year that could be driving some of the patterns that we’re seeing and good returns in Bristol Bay and poorer, weak returns across much of the rest of the state,” Lewis said.

Anecdotally, fishermen have been telling KDLG all summer their red salmon seem smaller than in years past, but Lewis confirmed it. In fact, he said the issue cuts across species statewide, with some of the smallest sizes on record. He blamed the marine environment.

“That suggests marine productivity at some level is behind it and whether it’s global climate change or just natural alterations through time of how the Pacific Ocean currents are structured, we believe that’s what largely is driving this,” Lewis said.

Besides affecting fishermen’s wallets, those smaller fish returning to Alaska’s river systems directly impact processors’ bottom lines, Lewis said.

“A processing plant can handle so many fish per day, and once you reach that capacity you’re pretty much topped out. The heading and gutting machines and fillet machines were built on six-pound average fish, and now we’ve got five-pound average fish,” Lewis said. “Ecologically, each female that comes back is going to have less eggs so their overall reproductive potential could be declining, and what are the ecological implications of that is unknown.”

Lewis could say with certainty, though, that strong returns and increasing prices over the last five years have raised the value of Bristol Bay salmon. He said this year’s ex-vessel value is among the top five in Bristol Bay’s history since they began keeping records around the turn of the century.

Lewis busted out a calculator to punch in the bay’s fish harvest so far  40 million  times the average sockeye weight of 5.5 pounds, times a base price of $1.25. That puts this season at $275 million, with the fish still trickling in.

In the end, Lewis attributed Bristol Bay’s success to strong collaboration among the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, organizations like the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute, and fishermen themselves.

“We’re all in lockstep together, and we receive tremendous support from the industry and the fishing fleet,” Lewis said.

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