At 56.5 million fish, Bristol Bay’s 2019 salmon season smashes expectations

Drift boats in the Nushagak District at the start of the 2019 season. (Photo by Alex Hager/KDLG)

More than 56 million fish returned to Bristol Bay this summer. That’s far more than predicted and the sixth-largest run ever recorded.

At $306.5 million, the preliminary exvessel value for the salmon season is the highest in the fishery’s history. The exvessel price is the amount of money fishermen get when they sell their salmon to a processor. But the key word here is “preliminary.”

“That total value will only go higher,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group, an Anchorage-based consulting firm.

Evridge explained that the price the Alaska Department of Fish and Game provided only includes this year’s base price of $1.35, not bonuses for things like icing and bleeding fish.

“That average price of $1.35 is only going to increase,” he said. “We don’t know what the final price will be, but it will be higher than a buck thirty-five. And then that will influence the total exvessel value for the 2019 Bristol Bay harvest.”

The final number, due out sometime next spring, will determine whether this year’s price will exceed previous seasons.

That price tag is just one in a series of big numbers from this summer. The Bristol Bay fleet hauled in 43 million fish – the second-largest harvest on record.

Tim Sands, an area management biologist for Fish and Game, says part of why the catch was so large this year is because more of the returning fish were 1-3s – that is, they had spent one year in freshwater and three in the ocean, and so had more time to grow.

“A higher percentage of older fish this year,” he said. “We had bigger fish in the Nushagak, but also fishermen adapted a little bit by using smaller-mesh gear.”

The enormous catch was harvested during one of the hottest, driest summers ever in Bristol Bay. In some rivers, the run was halted by thermal barriers – pockets of water that were too warm for the salmon to swim through. Sands said that was the case in the Igushik, on the west side of the bay.

“We did see and hear reports of many, many sockeye dying in that river,” Sands said. 

Still, all rivers ended up meeting or exceeding their escapement, meaning enough fish went on to spawn in their natal streams and lakes. Fish and Game expects to release the final numbers for 2019 this spring.

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