Warming Climate Expected to Boost Some Bristol Bay Stocks, Others Likely to Decline

Bristol Bay, Alaska. Image: maps-for-free.com

As the climate warms, with some fisheries in decline as others rise, all options are still on the table for Bristol Bay as long as effort continues to protect the habitat, manage harvest responsibly and help each other, according to a fisheries researcher who has studied the bay’s fisheries for over two decades.

The message was delivered March 24 to participants at the Bristol Bay Sustainability Conference in Dillingham by Daniel Schindler, a fisheries researcher and professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

“Some Bristol Bay stocks are likely to decline, offsetting the increases that could occur in other stocks,” he said. “It’s difficult to predict though. That is part of the message that has come out of looking at the last century of data, that the rivers tend to offset each other as some wax and wane.”

The extent to which current and future generations will experience a hotter and different world depends on choices now and in the near term, he said.

The advantage that Bristol Bay has over other areas of salmon rivers, he added, is that the Bay rivers are short with ecological diversities that allow habitat for fish who do better in warm and cooler conditions.

Schindler, who helps lead the university’s Alaska Salmon Program, has for years traveled to Bristol Bay every summer with his students to monitor salmon and their ecosystems at a suite of field camps. 

As a child growing up in Canada, he spent time at field camps his father ran for the Canadian federal government, studying acid rain and the nutritional richness of rivers and lakes.

Schindler’s presentation came in advance of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s forecast on April 3, that anticipated a 2023 Bristol Bay inshore sockeye salmon run of about 49.7 million fish, unchanged from the preliminary forecast released on last Nov. 3, with a point estimate of 51.07 million fish and a range of 36.58 to 65.56 million fish.

Based on the forecasted run size to each district and using the midpoints of either the lower or upper portion of escapement goal ranges, ADF&G said there’s a potential inshore surplus of 36.7 million fish.

The commercial salmon season in Bristol Bay opens by regulation on June 1, with fishing in eastside districts and the Togiak District on a weekly schedule that varies by section.

These schedules are in place to balance fishing opportunity with escapement in the early part of the season, particularly for king salmon.

An inshore run of some 18.3 million sockeyes in expected for the Naknek-Kvichak District. The projected surplus for the Naknek-Kvichak District is around 10.6 million sockeye salmon: 3.9 million from the Kvichak River, 2.0 million from the Alagnak River, and 4.7 million from the Naknek River.

For the Egegik District, the forecast is for 11.1 million sockeyes. The season there is to begin with commercial fishing three days a week to provide for king salmon escapement.

In the Ugashik District, biologists anticipate an inshore run of 3.3 million fish with an escapement goal of 500,000 to 1.4 million sockeyes and a potential surplus of 2.5 million fish.

For the Nushagak District, the anticipated inshore run is forecast at 16.3 million fish, with 2.6 million fish for escapement with a potential surplus of 13.6 million reds.

Togiak is expected to see an inshore run of 680,000 fish with a potential surplus of 490,000 fish.