The Bristol Bay fishing season is over. Record sockeye salmon returned to the bay this season. The salmon run of more than 70 million was the largest run in recorded history. The catch was also at a record level. But roses weren’t necessarily for everyone.
When we talk about Bristol Bay, we are not talking about a single entity. The bay consists of five separate fishing districts. Each district is governed by separate river systems. Rivers have their own salmon runs that are marginally connected to each other.
For example, the Nushagak district on the west side, headed by the Nushagak, Mesha and Igushik rivers, returned the second largest stocking run ever. On the east side, the Naknek/Kvichak area had a good run, but nowhere near a record.
Two other counties, Egigik and Ugashik, had excellent sockeye runs, certainly in the top five, but still not all-time highs. The last district, small Togiak, is separated from the rest of the bay by Cape Constantine and restrictive rules. Togiak runs an average sockeye.
Fishing vessels in Bristol Bay can fish wherever they like. However, a 48-hour waiting period is required to change their fishing area. Fishermen and their vessels cannot keep nets in the water during this period. Togiak is an exception. Bay fishermen cannot move into the area after July 27 – to protect the small local fishery from the large, expensive vessels that make up most of the Bristol Bay fleet.
With a few sets less productive than they had hoped, anglers may be tempted to move areas. The grass is always greener, but this sucks. The new district chosen should not only improve the catch, but also catch enough fish to make up for the missed two days of fishing.
A fisherman who transfers more than once loses four days of fishing. In the short Bristol Bay season, this can be disastrous. Four missed days can easily mean 80,000 to 100,000 pounds of fish during peak fishing. The 2022 season has reduced the transfer risk somewhat, with excellent runs in all districts.
You will hear stories of huge bay catches by individual vessels. We are all familiar with fish stories. Some are true, most are not. With over 50 years of commercial fishing, I’ve heard it all and take many stories with a whole grain of salt.
You hear many stories of spectacular catches. And for the most part anglers have done very well in Bristol Bay this season. The $1.15 base price was less than last season, but should increase as processor sales begin to pick up. Most people will tell you they had a great season. It may not have been their best fishing year, but it was close.
Among the success stories and happy anglers, there are more than a few who had a not-so-great season.
Mechanical problems are the most common complaint. There is always a shortage of welders, mechanics and refrigeration equipment in Bristol Bay.
The Bristol Bay fleet of more than 1,500 vessels could create a backlog of work orders. Some anglers are dealing with known mechanical problems at the end of the season. Others are waiting. The confrontation begins in the spring.
Some bay boats go to their home port where they continue to fish other species. Most ships stay on Bristol Bay boats. Fishing boats don’t sit well in a saltwater environment for 11 months. Corrosion takes its toll. The lack of qualified mechanics can cause anglers with limited time to settle for less experience.
The result is mid-season disruption. A Bristol Bay boat cruise will discover only half a dozen tender boats available all season. Several ships have sunk with too many socks on the back deck.
A late-season storm sweeping the North Pacific also took out several dozen setnet skiffs.
Storms, transfers, overloads and mechanics affected a significant part of the Bristol Bay fleet. The sequence of the 2022 Bristol Bay run helped save the season for many boats in a bay that had the potential for a disastrous season.
Despite an unproductive fishing season, few anglers will give it up. No more “wait for next year!”