Bristol Bay sockeye fishery faces new restrictions

Bristol Bay fishermen are facing new restrictions to the sockeye fishery on the Nushagak and Wood Rivers after the Alaska Board of Fisheries took action to list king salmon in the Nushagak as a stock of concern this month. The Wood River is a tributary of the Nushagak River, but does not have a substantial king salmon run, while the Nushagak is home to a sport fishery with lodges that key on kings.

This comes as Bristol Bay is expecting a sockeye run that won’t quite match the blockbusters of the past two years, but that Alaska Department of Fish and Game still categorizes as “strong.”

Tim Sands, area biologist for ADF&G in Bristol Bay, said the board of fisheries set out some new guidelines for sockeye in both rivers, essentially allowing for more sockeye in both rivers to allow for the possible passage of more kings early in the season, but with triggers that would allow commercial fishing to kick in earlier if the number of sockeye in each river reaches a certain threshold.

Sands said it’s a balance between allowing for the passage of kings and trying to prevent over-escapement and under-harvest of sockeye.

“If we’re trying to protect king salmon, it’s going to cost us sockeye,” he said. “Since the sockeye and king salmon have a lot of overlap in run timing, in order to get king salmon through the district we have to not fish, and not fishing means we’re going to have more sockeye salmon make it through as well.

“It means trying to find that balance between trying to provide the opportunity to catch (sockeye) and let king salmon through.”

Sands said that it’s going to change some ways they manage the fisheries, but the department has been concerned about king salmon for awhile. These moves just put the steps out publicly, he said, and make sure everyone knows what the expectations are, and give ADF&G that guidance to protect the king salmon.

He added that there is no forecast for king salmon in the Nushagak, but the escapement goal range is 55,000 to 120,000, and an in-river goal of 95,000. Last year the count was 44,000 kings past the sonar.

He said that they don’t enumerate the kings that split off for the Wood River, which doesn’t have a significant king run, so they don’t have an escapement goal for that river. Whatever helps the kings in the Wood River should help the Nushagak kings since it’s hard to tell which river the fish are headed for at the sonar, he said.

“The way the plan worked before was we were supposed to project 100,000 sockeye salmon up the Wood River if we projected below 55,000 king salmon up the Nushagak. So the way we managed it was we were waiting until we had at least 100,000 sockeye up the Wood River (to open fishing), not projecting, but past the tower, if we were projecting below 95,000 king salmon up the Nushagak River.

“We were trying to keep it conservative, because we can’t just forsake king salmon altogether, we have to do something.”

He said the board of fisheries is allowing for some over-escapement of sockeye to protect kings this season, but not without limits.

That is unlike ADF&G allowing for the complete closure of the entire setnet fishery on the east side and northern district of Cook Inlet to protect king salmon in Upper Cook Inlet. Sands did add that last year they could have shut down the entire gillnet fishery in the Nushagak and Wood Rivers and still not made the 95,000 king salmon escapement goal because the fish “just weren’t there,” saying they didn’t want to completely forsake the other users when there were maybe no more kings to save.

The run forecast for 2023 of around 51 million sockeye with a projected harvest of about 38 million should help with those management decisions.

“There should be less sockeye per week, so fewer fish going by per week, so there’s less urgency to fish (early), so more opportunity for those kings to go by,” he said, although he added that the projected harvest for this season is still larger than the 2016 harvest.

Cristy Fry can be reached at