Alaska's 2019 fisheries bring new records, continued concern
Alaska'S fisheries in 2019 had several bright spots, yet many areas of concern will return into the next year.
Once again the sockeye fishery in Bristol Bay was the shining star of the commercial sector. Fishermen caught Bristol Bay's 2 billionth sockeye salmon since records were first kept. The in-shore run of 57 million fish clocked in at the fourth-largest run on the record books, but the ex-vessel value of $306 million ranks as the best of all time.
"We had really good fisheries out in Bristol Bay," ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said. "In Southeast Alaska we were able to meet all our treaty obligations, provide commercial fishing opportunity and most importantly protect all our stocks of concern in Southeast Alaska."
2019 brought a mixed bag for sport fishermen in Southcentral.
The early run sockeye on the Kenai and Russian River quickly surpassed escapement goals even with the ADF&G increasing bag limits and opening areas usually closed to fishing. At one point, anglers could keep nine daily and have 18 in possession.
"We've had other years where we went up to six and 12 daily, but we've never had it go up that high. We just had a tremendous return of sockeye, and we use that return to provide opportunities for Alaskans and visitors to our state," Vincent-Lang said.
Even with additional limit increases for late-run Kenai River and Resurrection Bay sockeye, the 2019 season was tarnished by two major events.
The Swan Lake Fire loomed over of much of the Alaskan summer, and sportfishing didn't escape the impacts. The Upper Kenai River was temporarily closed for public safety and firefighting efforts during a time period that is one of the most important of the year for trout fishing guides on the Peninsula.
In the Mat-Su, a complete closure of the king salmon fishery required fishing guides to rearrange their season.
"Chinook salmon remain depressed across our state. It's a sad reality," Vincent-Lang said. "We had restrictions throughout Alaska this past year. The Northern Cook Inlet drainages were closed completely. Southeast Alaska we had in river fisheries closed due to poor returns. We don't see that changing in the immediate future, but we're hopeful that we're starting to turn the tide a little bit because we saw a lot of jacks last year in the return."
Jack salmon are males that return after spending one less winter in the ocean than other fish in the run.
"That usually in the past has meant that you'll see more fish in older age classes coming back because that age class is strong. It's unknown with the ocean conditions that are so warm out there whether that's going to come true or not, but in the past, that's been a good indicator," Vincent-Lang said.
In addition to continued questions over what's causing low Chinook returns, Vincent-Lang says that declining halibut abundance and Pacific cod stock are concerns for the department. While those species are managed either by federal or international agencies, Vincent-Lang says that ADF&G is working to lessen the impact on Alaskan fishermen and fishing communities while keeping the fisheries sustainable.
While 2019's hot summer caused large numbers of salmon die-offs in some rivers, Vincent-Lang says that is not a major threat to the sustainability of the salmon.
"We're going to start factoring in warm temperatures into how we set our escapement goals in the future. Clearly, if we have fish going past our sonar counters and our towers and are dying upriver, we're going to have to pass more fish into those upper river reaches to ensure we're meeting our spawning objectives," Vincent-Lang said. "We're not concerned with the fish die-offs we saw last year. There were some areas that had fish die-offs, but we believe that we put enough fish on the spawning beds to protect long-term sustainability this past summer."