Alaska’s 2021 salmon harvest sets new records, defying doomsayers again

So Many Salmon

By late July, salmon runs and the brown bears that pursue them are winding down at Brooks Falls. So I was skeptical about my daughter’s desire to visit this treasure in Alaska’s Katmai National Park in early August. Until she showed me the live webcam. We secured a last minute flight that did not disappoint.

A sockeye salmon attempts to outmaneuver both Brooks Falls and the gaping maw of a hungry Katmai brown bear. Image ©2021 David E. Shormann.

Salmon passing over Brooks Falls make their way up from Bristol Bay, without question the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery. At over 65 million sockeye returning, Bristol Bay’s 2021 sockeye salmon run has set another record

2021’s harvest was no anomaly. Recent years have seen a big uptick in Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon harvest. The previous record only stood for 3 years, with an incredible 62.3 million sockeye harvested in 2018.

To put things in perspective, Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, stated “If lined up nose-to-tail, this year’s Bristol Bay sockeye run would stretch on for roughly 20,000 miles, enough to encircle all the Lower 48 states… twice!”

After successfully migrating thousands of miles, these sockeye salmon rest peacefully in lower Brooks Lake before continuing the final leg of their journey. Image ©2021 David E. Shormann.

“This is not overfishing”

Describing 2021’s harvest as “natural abundance on an epic scale,” Wink went on to say “It’s important to highlight just how special the Bristol Bay salmon resource is. These records aren’t being set while overfishing. All escapement goals were met to propagate strong future runs. Despite all the bad news about environmental degradation and destruction, Bristol Bay is a shining example that healthy eco-systems can and still do still exist. It’s really an ecological treasure. We ask that state and federal government protect Bristol Bay salmon and the natural habitats that allow it to thrive.”

While overfishing occurs in Alaska and elsewhere, Alaskans are united in their commitment to sustainable fisheries. A sign at the Alaska Sea Life Center reads that when Alaska became a state in 1959, they mandated in their state Constitution that “ fish… utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle.” No other state has this level of commitment.

Alaska’s Bristol Bay salmon fishery is a shining example that large scale….correction…. epic scale, and sustainable fisheries are 100% possible. It is unfortunate that recent documentaries like Seaspiracy take a doomsday approach to fisheries. The film completely ignores Bristol Bay’s success, and makes the false claim that such a fishery is impossible. Seaspiracy robs viewers of a great opportunity to see real stewardship in action.

Why isn’t climate change killing off Alaska’s salmon?

Salmon prefer cooler waters, and a 2019 heat wave that hit Alaska resulted in lethally high temperatures for thousands of salmon. News outlets like CNN quickly attempted to spin this weather event as an example of the imminent threat of climate change (a.k.a. global warming hysteria). 

For species like pink salmon, which return to their spawning grounds after two years, fisheries experts predicted low returns for 2021. The predictions are proving wrong because by late July, Prince William Sound commercial fishermen had already landed 22.6 million pink salmon.

Salmon are extremely resilient, as evidenced by their journeys spanning thousands of miles through all sorts of temperature and salinity extremes. And their runs are actually timed so they can travel upstream at optimum temperature and water levels. They also adjust their run depending on water conditions. Some years, the main group arrives earlier, sometimes later than average.

While climate change is not the “imminent threat” some may claim, temperatures have increased some in many places. In the Bristol Bay watershed, scientists claim this has led to a longer growing season and improved survivability of young sockeye. Before young sockeye, called smolts, return to the sea, they spend one to two years in freshwater. While their life cycles are complex, expanding habitat due to warming temps, plus excellent fisheries management are key drivers in the recent record returns of Bristol Bay sockeye.

Can you have too many salmon?

While the 2021 Bristol Bay sockeye run broke records, the average fish size was smaller. According to a recent article, harvested sockeye averaged 4.5 pounds, down from 5.1 pounds last year. Increased survival in freshwater has led to increased competition in the ocean. But the competition isn’t just amongst sockeyes. According to fisheries expert Dan Schindler, There are also more salmon in the North Pacific ocean now than at any time in the last century due to an increase in hatchery-reared pink and chum salmon.

Sustainable fisheries management tries to identify two key numbers, how much is too few, and how much is too many. For example, the screenshot below is of fish count data for the Kenai River late sockeye salmon run, one of Alaska’s most popular salmon runs for recreational fishermen. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses sophisticated sonar equipment to count fish traveling upstream.

Screenshot of fish counts of the Kenai River (late-run sockeye), through Aug. 15, 2021. While the run is not over, it’s the largest since 1989, and exceeds minimum(red line) and maximum(maroon line) escapement goals.

As the Kenai River data shows, the 2021 run of sockeye already exceeds run totals for the previous 4 years. In fact, there’s so many sockeye that in early August ADF&G increased recreational catch limits from 3 to 6 sockeye per person, per day.

Oddly enough, the large Kenai River sockeye return is due in part to restrictions placed on commercial fishermen. Kenai River king salmon runs are below average, and since commercial fishermens’ nets cannot distinguish between a king and a sockeye, their efforts were restricted. These efforts increased the escapement of king salmon, but also sockeyes.

Conclusions As you might gather from the previous paragraphs, maintaining sustainable fisheries is complicated! But, it’s 100% possible. In 2021, Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon fishery proved it yet again. Because fisheries managers set harvest goals for maintaining optimum levels of spawning salmon, this helps wildlife like brown bears. Proper management results in sustainable populations of valuable resources, benefitting both humans and wildlife.