Seawatch: Alaska fisheries’ boom and bust year

As is generally the case in Alaska fisheries, this year was one of boom and bust. Salmon saw a boom year in some areas, halibut had a so-so year. Bering Sea crab saw a dismal year with a major bust on its heels, and herring was relatively successful catch wise. Bristol Bay headlined the salmon season with an extraordinary return of 79 million sockeye salmon, 81% above the 20-year average. It was only the fourth time in history that the run exceeded 60 million sockeye.

The harvest of 60.1 million sockeye was 104% above the 20-year average of 29.4 million fish, and the preliminary ex-vessel value of $352 million for all species was 120% above the 20-year average of $165.5 million.

Some Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishermen dodged a bullet when a federal judge blocked Alaska Department of Fish and Game from closing the area south of Kalgin Island to the drift fleet, where over 60% of their catch is harvested. But the east side setnet fishery took a major hit when the king salmon run fell below the numbers needed to keep fishing, even though at the time they had only harvested 38 kings.

Most other areas had relatively average salmon harvests, except for the ongoing crisis with salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. One noticeable difference was the average weight of sockeyes, the most valuable species caught. Weights actually saw an uptick from the 2021 season, when only a few areas saw an average weight per fish over 5 pounds, mostly in smaller fisheries such as the Kuskokwim River and Norton Sound. For example, the Norton Sound harvest was only 473 sockeye.

This year there was an increase in fish sizes, with a Bristol Bay average of 5.1 pounds per sockeye, compared to 4.7 last year. The smallest sockeye were in Kodiak, with both 2021 and 2022 averaging 4.5 pounds per fish. All other areas saw a small increase or stayed the same, most above 5 pounds per fish.

The Bering Sea has been kind to some species of salmon, but not so much for crab. The 2021-2022 opilio crab quota was cut by 90%. The western area for bairdi Tanner crab was the only area open, past 166 degrees longitude, with a 1.1 million pound quota. And there was no red king crab season.

That was an ominous sign for species who live at the bottom of the Bering Sea, where warming waters that are thought to have helped the huge sockeye salmon returns but were less kind to the crab species who dwell on the bottom.

Essentially, the entire Bering Sea, except for a small bairdi quota in the western area, is closed to crab fishing this season.

In 2022 mid-water fish such as cod and pollock had their Bering Sea quotas reduced, although the pollock season had a 13% increase for this season. Yellowfin sole, which is a bottom fish, had a decrease of 3.5%.

Halibut quotas were up mostly across the board, but prices were down sharply from the 2021 season, when prices reached well above $7.50 per pound, but fell to as low as $4.25 this year. There was a rebound at the end of the season when prices went above $6, but all areas left quota in the water, even in what are usually more productive areas like 3B, from the south end of Kodiak to Unimak Pass, where fishermen left 12% of the quota uncaught.

There were large quotas, and larger harvests, in the herring fishery, from Sitka Sound to Togiak. All areas had good returns and fairly high roe percentages.

Kodiak had a record harvest of 9,000 mt., compared with the previous record of 5701 mt. set in 2010.

Sitka Sound had a record quota of 45,164 mt., but only harvested 26,350 mt. But even that made it the largest on record by far, beating out the 2011 harvest of 19,429 mt. There may be more interest in 2023 as a large year class from 2016 continues to mature, and should produce even larger roe.

Cristy Fry can be reached at