Alaska has two very different salmon stories being told in 2022. In one, the Bristol Bay Fishery is booming. Last year the salmon harvest set a sockeye record in Bristol Bay, and the region has already topped that record in 2022. Over 73.7 million sockeye salmon have returned to their spawning grounds in and around Bristol Bay, with over 56 million harvested.
The Yukon River basin, however, is headed for its worst run ever. The sonar station has never recorded such a low number of Chinook salmon, and the run for the entire drainage-wide system may only hit 50,000. Not one tributary is expected to make their escapement goals. Salmon fishing for the entire drainage, which includes the rivers in and around Fairbanks, has been closed for the entire season.
The chum salmon run, which starts in late summer, is also expected to be bad. The season will start out closed for fishing, with a hope that enough chum return to open for a fall season. No one is expecting it to open.
As forecast, a Chinook blew into Interior Alaska this past weekend, driving temps in Fairbanks up into the 40’s. It was +44F at 8am in the valley on Sunday morning. The average high on Halloween is +18F. Also, as expected, our dusting of snow became a few patches of white.
Further south in Alaska: The NWS station in Girdwood at Alyeska recorded 9.5″ of rain in a 24 hour period. Nearby Porter Glacier Visitor Center recorded 10.34″ of rain on Saturday. It is the first 10+ inch precipitation event in 24 hours in Alaska since 2012. The storm total at Portage Glacier was 17.72″, as of Sunday evening. The epicenter for this event is Mount Baker, which is just 75 miles east of Anchorage, but 13,000 feet higher. The forecast for the slopes of Mount Baker “Snow could be heavy at times”. SATURDAY AFTERNOON: 29-35″; SATURDAY NIGHT-SUNDAY MORNING: 108-114″ Possible; SUNDAY AFTERNOON: 82-88″; SUNDAY NIGHT: 100% Chance of Snow, Heavy At Times.
The news that the chum fishing season had closed on the Yukon brought me a question from the balcony. “What’s a chum?”
Chum Salmon, also known as the Dog Salmon. The least commercially sought after of our Pacific Salmon. Alaska chum mature at 5 years. An adult chum can weigh between 9 – 22 pounds, with an average length of 24″. The record chum salmon weighed in at 42 pounds.
Pink Salmon, also known as Humpies. One look at a pink in its spawning phase will make it clear how the other name stuck. The back of a pink will grow a large hump, making them the Quasimodo of the salmon world. Humpies are the smallest of our five species, averaging just under 5 pounds as an adult. A usual year sees a harvest of 107 million pounds of pinks in Alaska waters. The record pink weighed 15 pounds. I admit to being a salmon snob, and refuse to keep pinks. Visitors can keep them, but my rule is that they have to take the humpy with them when they leave. Luckily, I can be a bit selective on what goes into my freezer.
Coho Salmon, also known as Silvers. The coho is probably known more as a game fish than a prize for the commercial fisheries. They amount to only 3.5% of the Alaska catch my numbers, just under 6% by weight. They are fun to catch though, and make up the majority of my cache in most years. On average, the returning salmon weigh 7-11 pounds, with some reaching up to 36 pounds, but that is a big silver. The spawning coho will develop a large kype, or hooked beak.
Sockeye Salmon, or Reds. The salmon that makes Alaska, the sockeye has a lifespan of 3-7 years, and can weigh 6-16 pounds as an adult. Bristol Bay alone, which is home to the largest (and last) great sockeye fishery, brings in an annual catch of some 30 million sockeye salmon. Statewide, sockeyes are the third most abundant species of salmon.
Saving the biggest for last: The Chinook or King Salmon. An adult king averages 30 pounds and 36″ in length, with the Alaska record being 126 pounds and 58″ in length. The Chinook is the official state fish, and the one everyone wants to catch. Images of the massive Chinook caught out of the Kenai River are all over the internet. Unfortunately, this is the species of Pacific Salmon that seems to have taken the biggest hit, population wise. It is a rare year when a King can be kept from the Yukon River these days, and even the Kenai Peninsula is seeing seasons shortened, if not called off altogether.
People talk of keystone species, and the salmon is the keystone for an entire state. The amount of biomass that enters the ecosystem every year with the death of the spawning salmon is simply staggering. Commercial fisheries, subsistence users, sport fishing, lodges, guides, all rely on the salmon.
The Tongass is known as America’s Salmon Forest, with roughly 17,000 miles of salmon streams and rivers. The nutrients that enter the forest every year from the salmon, drive the forest. Every year, salmon offer a smorgasbord to bears, wolves, eagles and the like, throughout the state.
Nothing is more important to Alaska than its salmon.
Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.
The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.
The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.
At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.
Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.
There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.
Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner