Bristol Bay Fishery Report: Sockeye Salmon Still Strong After Record 2022; Togiak Herring Fishery Canceled in 2023

Sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay had a record-breaking inshore run in 2022, data show. Photo: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS.

While one commercial fishery in the Bristol Bay and Bering Sea area is coming off a record-breaking year, another didn’t even open this year due to lack of interest.

As the largest sockeye salmon producing region in Alaska, Bristol Bay exceeded historic benchmarks with record-breaking inshore numbers reported in 2022. Following the hefty stock last year, the total run for 2023 is predicted to be smaller, but still strong.

The outlook for the Togiak herring fishery is also robust, but the purchasing market is floundering. Fish processors indicated earlier this year that they did not intend to harvest herring in Togiak in 2023, so there will be no commercial fishery this spring, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG).

This is the first time in several decades that Togiak hasn’t had a commercial fishery.

2022 Salmon Summary

The 2022 Bristol Bay commercial salmon season was record-breaking. According to ADFG, the inshore sockeye salmon run of 79 million fish is the largest on record and was 81% above the 43.6 million average run for the latest 20-year period (2002–2021). It was only the fourth time on record that the Bristol Bay inshore sockeye salmon run has exceeded 60 million fish.

Chris Boatright, salmon program manager and a research scientist with the University of Washington, noted the broken records during a May 4 webinar covering the Bristol Bay 2023 forecast, hosted by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

“Certainly, the biggest harvest, by quite a bit, on record,” Boatright said.

It was more than officials had expected.

The 2022 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run was 8% above the preseason inshore forecast of 73.4 million fish, according to the ADFG season summary. Runs to every district, except Togiak, were larger than the preseason forecast. Although the commercial harvest of 60.1 million sockeye salmon was “essentially the same” as the 59.9 million preseason forecast, it was 104% higher than the recent 20-year average of 29.4 million for all districts.

Sockeye salmon escapement goals were exceeded on the Nushagak, Wood and Ugashik rivers; all other systems were within their respective escapement goal ranges. Overall, run timing was one day early, making it the earliest since 2014.

“This was the largest harvest on record, surpassing the previous record set in 1995 of 44.3 million sockeye salmon by 36%. All sockeye salmon escapement goals were met or exceeded, with a total bay-wide escapement of 18.9 million fish,” ADFG officials noted.

The 2022 Bristol Bay preliminary ex-vessel value also broke records. The $351.7 million total for all salmon species ranks at the top for the last two decades, 110% above the 20-year average of $167.5 million. The 60.5 million harvest of all salmon species was the largest harvest on record. 

Summing up the other salmon species, chinook salmon harvested in Bristol Bay this season were incidentally caught during directed sockeye salmon fishing periods. It was actively managed to reduce the harvest in an effort to ensure achievement of the established escapement goal.

Overall, the 2022 Chinook salmon harvests were below average in all districts of Bristol Bay. A preliminary total of 8,374 Chinook salmon were harvested, which is below the most recent 20-year average of 42,658 fish, and the second lowest in the last 20 years. 

The chum salmon harvest was 301,816 fish, also below the recent 20-year average of 1.1 million fish. Although pink salmon were abundant in Bristol Bay in 2022, there was not a fishery directed at them. The harvest was incidental to the sockeye salmon fishery and totaled 95,724 fish, 19% of the average harvest for the last 10 even years. The preliminary coho salmon harvest in 2022 was 9,040 fish, which was below the recent 20-year average of 97,139 fish. 

2022 Togiak Herring Summary

The large Togiak sac roe herring fishery had a record total allowable harvest (using gillnet and purse-seine gear) of 65,107 tons in 2022, but the actual take was notably lower than the guideline allocation.

Only two processing companies (with eight purse-seine vessels) participated in the 2022 Togiak herring fishery, according to ADFG data. There have been fewer than three since 2019, and at that level of participation in the fishery, harvest information is confidential.

The 2022 preseason biomass forecast was 357,536 tons with an exploitation rate of 20% (71,507 tons). The Bristol Bay Herring Management Plan allocated the harvestable surplus among all the Togiak herring fisheries, including a harvest guideline of 65,107 tons to the sac roe fishery.

The management plan further specifies that the department will manage the sac roe fishery so that 80% of the harvest is taken by purse seine (52,086 tons in 2022) and 20% of the harvest is taken by gillnet (13,021 tons in 2022).

Preliminary estimates indicated that prices would be between $100 and $150 per ton. Specific harvest numbers are confidential, but the total harvest was less than 25% of the 52,086-ton purse seine guideline harvest level.

The Togiak purse seine fishery opened on April 27. Officials reported that weather was good for most of the season and did not appear to prevent fishing for any significant amount of time. The fishery continued until fishermen ended participation on May 15, with its official closure on May 16.

Although plans were in place for gillnet participation during the 2022 Togiak herring fishery, the effort never materialized and the gillnet fishery never opened.

2023 Salmon Outlook

Although this year’s forecast is to see a smaller number of sockeye salmon compared to the 2022 record, some experts are anticipating larger fish sizes. 

Boatright, along with other forecasters at the UWA salmon program, is predicting the 2023 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon total at 49.98 million. The inshore harvest is estimated at 34.95 million, he added.

The UWA’s 2023 Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon Forecast, released on Nov. 3, notes that the prediction is 13% lower than the recent 10-year average (57 million) and 4% higher than the recent 20-year average (48 million) of observed sockeye runs to Bristol Bay.

They expect the inshore harvest of nearly 35 million sockeye to translate to about 195 million pounds. Their forecast calls for the Nushagak district to see the largest proportion at more than 70 million pounds.

If the overall production for Bristol Bay drops down to a total run size of about 50 million sockeye as predicted, they would expect to see a rise in fish size, Boatright said.

“It’s been known for quite a while that there is an inverse relationship between total-run size in Bristol Bay and size of fish,” he said. “These really large returns have seen small fish.”

For 2023, they expect 39% of the population to be two-ocean sockeye and 61% to be three-ocean sockeye. Over the recent 20-year timeframe, the average weight of two-ocean sockeye is 4-5.1 pounds and 5.5-7.5 pounds for three-ocean sockeye.

The ADFG is predicting similar numbers.

According to the outlook released on April 3 by the agency, the 2023 Bristol Bay inshore sockeye salmon run forecast is about 49.7 million fish. Based on the forecast run size to each district and using the midpoints of either the lower or upper portion of escapement goal ranges, there is a potential inshore surplus of 36.7 million sockeye salmon. 

According to ADFG, the Nushagak district will see the most sockeye salmon with an inshore run forecast of about 16.3 million fish, with 2.6 million for escapement and a potential surplus of 13.6 million. Under the guidance of the Nushagak River King Salmon Action Plan it is possible that the potential surplus may not be completely harvested. 

In the Naknek-Kvichak district, they are expecting an inshore run of about 18.3 million sockeye salmon. Based on the forecast and escapement goals, the projected surplus in the district is around 10.6 million sockeye salmon.

The 2023 forecasted inshore run for Egegik River is anticipated to be around 11.1 million sockeye salmon with a potential surplus of 9.4 million. The Ugashik River inshore run is forecast to be roughly 3.3 million fish and the potential surplus is 2.5 million. Togiak River will likely see an inshore run of about 680,000 fish with a potential surplus of 490,000 fish.

2023 Togiak Herring Outlook

Although the 2023 forecast indicates a total estimated biomass for mature herring at above average at 316,203 tons, there is no purchasing interest for the Togiak sac roe. So, for the first time in several decades, there is no commercial fishery for Togiak herring this year.

Fish processors indicated earlier in the year that they do not intend to harvest herring in Togiak in 2023 and so the commercial fishery won’t happen this spring, the ADFG announced on March 20. The department does not expect this to change.

“The herring are here now and there is no market interest, so no fishery this year,” said Tim Sands, area management biologist for the West Side of Bristol Bay, in a May email to Fishermen’s News.

The fishery usually begins in April or May. This year, according to the department’s sea surface temperature model, the first herring spawn was to arrive on April 29.

“The lack of interest for the Togiak fishery does not impact the Dutch Harbor Food and Bait fishery or (harvest level),” ADFG officials confirmed.

The dwindling interest isn’t a surprise as harvestable herring has exceeded demand for many years.

Recent history saw the market demand increase in the 1970s, particularly in Japan where local herring harvests had dramatically declined, according to the ADFG. Business was booming through the 1980s until the early 1990s, the agency reported, but the buying interest has since diminished as tastes have changed and the price has fluctuated over the decades.

In 2022, longtime herring fishers Scott McAllister and Bruce Schactler authored the Alaska Herring Market Recovery Project Report, funded by the state and published by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The in-depth study aimed “to bring a new perspective to an old business that is stuck in the 1980s.” The hope is that the report will prompt new market strategies to help the iconic Alaskan fishery prosper again.

This year, even though the Togiak herring fishery didn’t open, ADFG will continue to conduct aerial surveys to assess the herring biomass. The 2023 mature herring biomass forecast is based on an age-structured assessment model. Under a 20% exploitation rate, the 2023 potential harvest is 63,241 tons for all combined fisheries and 57,419 tons for the Togiak sac roe fisheries (using gillnet and purse-seine gear). 

“The large forecast is due primarily to the highest estimated recruitment of age-4 fish on record in 2021 (about 1.5 times the large recruitments seen in the early 1980s) and one of the largest recruitments on record in 2020,” officials noted. “These cohorts are projected to make up an even higher portion of the population in 2023 due to increasing maturity.” 

Most of this year’s mature population is anticipated to be 6- and 7-year-old fish, both by the total number (39% and 22% respectively) and by biomass (36% and 24% respectively). The average weight in the mature population is expected to be about 321 grams, whereas the forecast average weight of a fish that is vulnerable to the commercial purse-seine fishery is 332 grams. 

Sara Hall has 15 years of experience at several regional and national magazines, online news outlets, and daily and weekly newspapers, where coverage has  included reporting on local harbor activities, marine-based news, and regional and state coastal agencies. Her work has included photography, writing, design and layout.