Part of the Bristol Bay watershed     Credit: NRDC

Bristol Bay’s sockeye run this summer of nearly 66 million was the largest on record. But why that region maintains such salmon strength while others struggle is a mystery. Fisheries further west, for example,  are seeing the lowest salmon returns ever.

One factor in play for Bristol Bay could be water temperature.

“Climate warming seems to have actually benefited Bristol Bay sockeye — warmer temperatures, more food, more growth opportunities and they are still in the sweet spot of water temperatures that are still profitable.”

Daniel Schindler is a professor and ecologist at the University of Washington and a main investigator with the Alaska Salmon Program which has tracked Bristol Bay watersheds since the 1940s. For 25 years he has been researching the Wood River system, one of nine rivers feeding into the Bay.

Schindler told KDLG in Dillingham that another possibility for Bristol Bay’s sustained salmon success is the region’s large and intact habitat with its watersheds free of roads and other development.

“That’s one of the reasons Bristol Bay is so unique, is that all of that habitat diversity is still here, and all of that genetic diversity in the salmon and life history diversity is still here. And it’s interesting scientifically, but it’s also important for the fishery, because all of that diversity stabilizes how many fish come back from year to year.”  

© Cameron Karsten Photography for Grundens

Fish populations fluctuate and the Bay’s sockeye runs aren’t likely to remain at such high levels forever.  But Schindler said he’s optimistic.

 “But if we look into a crystal ball for the next century and look at the fact that the world is warming, there is no reason to believe that Bristol Bay salmon populations won’t continue to flourish even under substantially warmer temperatures. Really the question is how much more warming these systems can withstand before they get too warm like California and other places in the Pacific Northwest.”

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