After "nerve racking" slow start, Bristol Bay catch numbers rebound with 2 million plus catch days

 Courtesy: Katherine Carscallen
Courtesy: Katherine Carscallen (KTUU)
Published: Jul. 12, 2020 at 6:11 PM AKDT
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The Fourth of July is typically the high point in the salmon season for Bristol Bay's commercial fishing fleet, but in a year where COVID-induced uncertainty dominated the preseason, low harvest added to anxiety in the first weeks of the season.

"It was a very, very slow start. I think the slowest in my experience every fishing. It was definitely nerve-racking," Katherine Carscallen, a drift gillnet fishermen in the Nushagak District said. "The Fourth of July is our typical peak, and that was where I looked at my log book where I keep track of how much we've caught and definitely started asking myself like, 'how is this possible.'"

Through July 4, the cumulative bay wide harvest was just over 6 million fish - 49% below the average since 2012. Then the evening of Independence day the fish arrived in massive numbers.

"By the fifth of July it was just hard hitting for the fifth, sixth and seventh," Carscallen said. "We definitely increased out poundage by a whole lot in just three days, and since then it's just kinda been going steady."

The fleet has caught at least 2 million salmon every day since July 5, with the highest daily catch being just over 3 million on July 6. After Saturday's catch the cumulative harvest for 2020 stood at 23.5 million fish - 7% more than the average since 2012.

Andy Wink, Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, says the harvest could have been higher, but processors are operating at a lower capacity because of the coronavirus. Processors in the region have put limits in place on how much fish they are buying.

"I think this is a historic stretch in the fishery's long history, and I don't know that we've ever seen this many fish in such a short period of time," Wink said. "So it's not surprising that we're seeing limits especially with COVID-19 this season and the things that processors are needing to do to follow their safety measures."

Reduced processor capacity isn't the only impact of COVID-19 this season.

In addition to its share of the global impacts on prices, Bristol Bay is also seeing fewer people fishing.

Wink says that earlier in the season, around five to 10 percent of fishermen said they would not come to the region or fish with smaller crews. A third of the way through the season Wink says about 5 percent of permits were not being fished.

For Carscallen, COVID-19 has had other impacts.

She spoke to Channel 2 while in Dillingham to fix a mechanical issue with her boat.

"I had another breakdown at the beginning of the season that was a little hard to get together and get worked on just because of the shortage of support people in town here," Carscallen said. "I think several of the welders and support mechanics didn't come up this year, and that put a crunch on a lot of things early in the season. And we're feeling the impacts as far as processing capacity."

Although a number of seafood industry workers have tested positive for COVID-19, Wink says he feels the procedures put in place by the industry have done their job.

"We're not out of the woods yet on COVID, but I'd say so far it's good, knock on wood. I think we had around 40 cases that were tested positive. There's only a handful of those people still in the Bay in isolation, so I'd say the testing program and safety measures thus far have worked reasonably well," Wink said. "We haven't seen community spread and we haven't seen hospitalizations, and that was the big thing we were worried about."

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