Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 6:05 PM on Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bristol Bay's salmon runs well below predictions

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has issued the post-season rundown of the 2011 Bristol Bay salmon season, putting numbers to what fishermen have acknowledged was a relatively poor run, but also quantifying the salve that good prices put on the season.

Bristol Bay saw a total run of 30.3 million sockeye salmon and a catch of 21.9 million, well below the preseason run forecast of 38.5 million sockeye and catch forecast of 28.5 million fish.

Those numbers put it 14th out of the past 20 years, 18 percent below the average for those years, and compares rather poorly with the 2010 run of 40.2 million sockeye and catch of 29 million.

The normally prolific Egegik district took the biggest hit, coming in 35 percent below the run forecast, followed by the Ugashik district at 28 percent under, with the Nushagak district close on its heels at 27 percent below forecast. Naknek-Kvichak came closer to meeting expectations at 8 percent below forecast, and the Togiak district was the only one to exceed forecast, coming in at 9 percent over.

Sockeye were not the only salmon species to come up short. King salmon runs statewide have been struggling, and the Bristol Bay king harvest of 37,800 fish was 41 percent below the 20-year average harvest. The chum harvest of 739,000 fish was 27 percent below the 20-year average, and the coho harvest was a staggering 84 percent below that average with a harvest of only 13,700 fish. The pink harvest was reported at 811 fish.

Changes made at the last round of Bristol Bay Board of Fisheries meetings to encourage fishing earlier in the season appeared to have been well-timed, as the run came in strong early on and faded quickly in the first few days of July, during what should have been the peak. Those efforts were especially successful in the Egekik district, where the catch was only 27 percent below preseason projections even though the run was 35 percent under.

In spite of the weak run, preliminary ADF&G estimates put the ex-vessel value of the fishery at $137.7 million for all species, 17 percent above the 20-year average. That number is based on an average price of $1 per pound for sockeye, compared with 95 cents in 2010. The 2010 ex-vessel value was $153.1 million.

While there are undoubtedly many theories as to why the Bristol Bay sockeye run came back relatively weak, one theory that was published by Edward Farley, with the National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Science Center, and his colleagues in the April edition of the Journal of Oceanography and Marine Science has gotten some attention.

Farley and his cohorts were studying the effects of warming in the eastern Bering Sea on sockeye salmon survival.

The study focused on the first year the salmon spend in salt water because of the critical physiological and environmental changes the young fish experience, according to an interview Farley did with public radio station KDLG in Dillingham.

The study found that a warming event in the Bering Sea in 2002-2005 increased survival of juvenile salmon.

"We saw some real changes in the ecosystem in response (to the warming)," Farley said. "Those fish that left fresh water had a pretty high survival. That was a good index, because the runs had been pretty strong after that event."

Beginning in 2006, Farley said the Bering Sea experienced a cooling trend that saw a decline in survival rates for young salmon. That would begin to correspond with the lower-than-expected return seen in the 2011 fishery, and could signal smaller catches in coming years, since the cooling is ongoing. It also could provide the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with another tool to determine expected run size.

The U.S. Coast Guard has announced that the cutter Munro, in cooperation with federal and international partners, has seized a fishing vessel and crew suspected of large-scale illegal high-seas drift net fishing in the North Pacific. The event took place approximately 2,600 miles south of Kodiak.

The seized vessel is named Bangun Perkasa, which an Internet search indicates may be Indonesian.

The Coast Guard states that renegade large-scale high-seas drift net fishing indiscriminately kills massive amounts of fish and other marine life such as whales and turtles by means of enormous nets suspended for miles in open water. The practice is universally condemned and is a significant threat to ocean ecosystems and to the food and economic security of nations that rely on fishery resources.

The vessel's 22-member crew reportedly abandoned their fishing nets and attempted to leave the area once they spotted the Coast Guard helicopter flying above them. The vessel was determined to be operating without valid flag state registration and seized as a stateless vessel for violations of U.S. law.

A Munro boarding team determined the vessel had more than 10 miles of drift net, 30 tons of squid and approximately 30 shark carcasses aboard. They retrieved the abandoned net and began the lengthy escort toward Dutch Harbor.

The crew also found rats aboard, and in order to prevent problems from invasive species, the Coast Guard is working closely with state, local, tribal and agency partners to ensure all precautions and procedures are being followed to mitigate the rat infestation aboard the Bangun Perkasa before it will be allowed into port.

NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement will take the case from the Coast Guard for further investigation into illegal fishing activities by this and any related vessels, as well as into those behind and profiting from this unlawful activity. Once the investigation is completed, NOAA will forward its findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.