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Statewide summary predicts record-hitting run in Bristol Bay and below-average harvests in Cook Inlet

Fish and Game predicts about 2.05 million sockeye will be available for commercial harvest in Upper Cook Inlet in 2022.
Sabine Poux
Fish and Game predicts about 2.05 million sockeye will be available for commercial harvest in Upper Cook Inlet in 2022.

Alaska fishermen could see a record sockeye salmon harvest of 74 million fish this year, most of which will come from Bristol Bay. That’s according to the commercial fishing forecast summary released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game ahead of the 2022 season.

The department is expecting a return of nearly 75.3 million sockeye to Bristol Bay, of which about 59.5 million would be available for harvest. The predictions have industry insiders wondering if harvesters and processors there will be able to keep up.

The forecast in Cook Inlet, on the other hand, is considered “weak” by the department. The same Fish and Game forecast predicts a total run of 4.97 million sockeye to Upper Cook Inlet, of which about 2.05 million should be available for commercial harvest.

While the numbers are below average, they’re not surprising. Cook Inlet has seen a string of below-average commercial seasons.

And still, Pacific Star Seafoods Plant Manager Nate Berga, of Kenai, said he’s hopeful.

The 2020 season was really bad, as markets were unsettled by the pandemic. Fishermen caught less salmon and they didn’t earn as much per pound as they did in years prior.

Last year was an improvement, both for catches and price per pound. Berga thinks that’s heartening for fishermen and is expecting a decent turnout in the fishery.

"I think after last season, they’re encouraged," he said. "There’s a little wind in their sails. So we’re anticipating a fair amount coming up.”

He said regardless of the forecast, what matters are the restrictions Fish and Game puts on fishermen during the season.

Even though the run wasn't great last year, Berga said Fish and Game gave the drift fleet time to get out on the water and fish.

“Regardless of the run and how healthy it might look, if you’re not in the water fishing you’re not making a living," Berga said.

A large subset of permit holders won’t be able to fish this year, since the feds closed a swath of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing in 2020. Fishermen from the gear group that represents Cook Inlet gillnetters, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, argued their case in court Friday in an attempt to get that order stopped before the season starts.

The Fish and Game forecast also predicts a slightly below-average run for the Kenai River — an estimated 2.9 million fish on the Kenai, compared with a 20-year average of 3.7 million.

Fish and Game’s escapement goal for the Kenai River for 2022 is 1.1 to 1.4 million sockeye. Last year, the run was overescaped as more late-run sockeye passed through the Kenai River sonar than the department had aimed for.

This year is also a pink salmon year. Fish and Game is forecasting a commercial harvest of 391,000 pinks in 2022.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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