Alaska salmon managers have decades of data to help them forecast and track the fish each year. Alaska Natives add to that knowledge with their centuries of salmon observations.

One indicator of the size and timing of the runs is the spring bird migration, says James Nicori, one of four managers with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

“Looking at the birds and observing them, they were late. So those salmon will come in, but the high numbers will be at a later date.”

Nicori told KYUK in Bethel another sign is the size of mosquitos when they arrive in the spring.

 “This year, when the mosquitoes first came in they were a bigger mosquito than last year, and the first kings that I caught were bigger than last year.”

The biggest indicator for salmon runs, he said, is wind.

“When there is a certain wind direction, it pushes fish in the mouth of the river.”

Yukon elders taught the importance of wind to Phil Mundy, longtime Director of NOAA Fisheries’ Auke Bay lab in Juneau, now retired. And Cook Inlet elders said the same thing about sockeyes.

“They said, you know, it’s when the wind blows and you get the biggest tide closest to July 17. Everyone knows that. So I started looking into it.  We couldn’t figure out exactly how the wind was doing what it did. I didn’t think the fish put up their dorsal fin like a sail to blow into the river, but there had to be something there because they seemed to be right.”  

Mundy had studied Alaska salmon since the 1970s. It wasn’t until 2006 that he learned that wind helps trip a calcium ion switch that mixes the water and lets salmon adjust from salt to fresh water and vice versa.

 “I used to count fish from airplanes,  and I’ve seen this at Bristol Bay and at Cook Inlet where you get the river water piling up against the marine water on the river plume, and then you’ll see the salmon weaving in and out along the edge of the front between the fresh water and the salt water. And I never knew why they were doing that.  They will pile up if there is no wind to mix that fresh and salt water to make it brackish. If there is no wind to blow, they will pile up on that front until some other trigger, which we probably don’t understand, sends them all in.”

Mundy said at the Yukon, the wind whipped water even tops early ice melts as the best indicator of the salmon arrivals  –

 “We know now that it really depends on whether or not they are getting a good strong forcing wind across the delta that hits the marine water and mixes that fresh water in with the salt water.

Today satellite data from the Alaska Ocean Observing System make predictions easier and more reliable.