Alaska’s statewide salmon catch of nearly 200 million is just six percent off what managers predicted, and it is on track to be the 8th largest harvest since 1975. How to sum up the 2019 season in a single word?

 “Unpredictable”  

Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game commercial fisheries division, is a nearly 30 year management veteran.

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The brightest fishing spot was the strong returns of sockeyes which produced a catch of over 55 million fish, the largest since 1995 and the fifth consecutive year of Alaska’s harvest topping 50 million reds. Strong runs of other salmon made for a good season.

“Well, for the most part, we had large returns around the state of all species with the exception of Chinook salmon, and we met most of our escapement goals.”

In many regions unprecedented hot temperatures threw salmon runs off kilter and also killed large numbers of fish unable to swim up dry streams to spawn.  It’s been tough to track how many salmon might have perished in the heat wave.

 “But we’ve been taking reports from people in the public, we’ve had staff out in the field, trying to collect information on the on the extent of those die offs.  It’s possible that we would consider adjusting our escapement estimates based on those, but from what we’ve seen the magnitude is relatively small, we don’t believe the die offs have been significant enough to impact escapement. Now, whether the warm water warm and low water conditions will result in reduced by ability of offspring from these fish spawning this year or increase overwintering mortality. That’s that remains to be seen. But, but those are possibilities as well.

The same environmental conditions appear to be playing out favorably in westward regions.

 “Particularly north of the Alaska Peninsula and the Bering Sea have been really favorable for salmon production at Bristol Bay, the Yukon, Norton Sound and Kotzebue. And we’re starting to see salmon move even further into the Arctic. On the North Slope, we’re seeing sockeye and pink salmon up there. So that’s a new one for us.”  

It’s a sign of the times, Bowers added, and the unpredictability brings new challenges to salmon managers.

            “It’s difficult to count on traditional run timings. We have so much run timing data for Pacific salmon and Alaska that go back over 100 years for some of the stocks that we rely on for in season management decisions. With a very compressed run such as at Bristol Bay, even a deviation of a few days creates a lot of uncertainty. Does that mean the run is late or not as large as forecast? So that’s what we’re seeing in the last couple of years, this increased uncertainty in terms of run time and size.”

 

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