Salmon returns to Alaska’s Bristol Bay expected to drop to more normal levels next year

Salmon returning from the ocean attempt to jump Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Brooks River on July 12, 2018. Next year’s Bristol Bay sockeye salmon return is expected to be more in line with the long-term average after a string of record and near-record returns. State biologists are basing their forecast in large part on the mix of sockeye age classes that returned this year. (Photo by Russ Taylor/National Park Service)

(Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon) – After recent years of record or near-record runs and harvests, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon numbers are expected to return to more average levels next year, according to state biologists.

The 2024 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run is expected to total 39 million fish, with a predicted range between about 25 million and 53 million fish, according to a preliminary forecast released Friday by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

That is 35% lower than the average over the past 10 years but 6% higher than the long-term average for Bristol Bay, the department said in its forecast.

Bristol Bay is site of the world’s largest sockeye salmon runs, and recent years’ returns have been especially large. Last year’s sockeye salmon return hit a record of 79 million fish, and the 2022 harvest of 60.1 million sockeye salmon was also a record, according to the department. This year’s run totaled 54.5 million, the eighth largest on record, according to the department.

If the run comes in as forecasted, it would be about the same size as runs in the early 2000s, according to state records.“Record runs cannot happen every year, so to me, it is not a big surprise that we are seeing runs come down a bit,” Stacy Vega, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game area research biologist, said in an email. She added that “forecasting is inherently inaccurate. It is very difficult to get it right every time.”

A major factor used to make next year’s forecast was the mix of ages in the fish that returned this year, as is the usual practice.

A smaller-than-expected return this year of fish that had spent one year in freshwater and two years in the ocean suggest that there will likewise be a somewhat small return of fish from the same brood stock but with three years’ time in the ocean, Vega said.

Sockeye salmon spend one to four years in freshwater and one to three years in the ocean, according to the Department of Fish and Game.

Recent years’ extra-large runs of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon had some mixed effects.

For fishers, a downside was a glut on the market that depressed prices. Even though this year’s harvest of 40.6 million sockeye was 27% above the 20-year harvest average, the total ex-vessel value of $117.4 million – the amount paid directly to fishers for their catches – was 37% below the 20-year average, according to the Department of Fish and Game. A flood of Russian salmon added to the market problem for all Alaska salmon, including that from Bristol Bay; one major processor, Trident Seafoods, stopped buying Alaska salmon earlier than normal this year and cited the Russian fish as one reason for the action.

The large amount of Bristol Bay sockeye may have helped some low-income Americans, however. Some of the leftover supply from last year’s record harvest was purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its food-assistance program.

And one particular population that benefited from the extraordinarily large runs of recent years were the brown bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve. The subject of the annual Fat Bear Week online promotion, the bears feast in the summer and fall on salmon that swim into the park’s rivers, and an international audience watches them fish on the Brooks River, thanks to a system that sends livestream images from a camera installed there.