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Story Publication logo August 28, 2022

The Salmon Mystery of Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay

This collaborative journalistic effort looks into the record-shattering summer sockeye season on...

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A bird's eye view of a crystal clear creek full of hundreds of salmon. The brilliant red and maroon-colored fish are all swimming in the same direction.
Sockeye salmon gather in Lake Nerka near the mouth of Sam Creek on July 22 in Wood-Tikchik State Park. Tens of thousands of salmon will gather in the lake at the mouth of their natal rivers before they make a push up the river to spawn. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.
Alaska’s biggest salmon run is booming despite warming water, and scientists are trying to understand why.

PICK CREEK, Alaska—In mid-July, sockeye poured into this stream, skittering through the shallows balanced on their bellies as their backs thrust out of the water.

They were easy prey for a brown bear that dashed into the creek to feast on only the choicest morsels. The bear grabbed a female, sucked out the eggs and flung her body—still squirming—to the ground. From a snaggletoothed male, the bear took a quick bite of the back—turned a deep pink color—before discarding him on a sand bar in search of more flavorful fare.

a brown bear standing in the water holds a squirming salmon in his mouth.
In a record sockeye season, a brown bear takes one bite of a fish before casually tossing it aside in Pick Creek, near Lake Nerka in Wood-Tikchik State Park. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

These fish were part of a record surge of more than 78.3 million salmon that returned this summer to Bristol Bay, providing a mainstay harvest for thousands of fishermen from Alaska, Washington and other states. This spectacular display of abundance in the northern realm of sockeye came during a warming century when some wild salmon runs often have struggled.

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The Bristol Bay sockeye spend much of their lives in the Bering Sea, and studies have found that they generally do better in years when water temperatures climb a few degrees Fahrenheit. During the past decade, which has included marine heat waves in 2018 and 2019, sockeye, though smaller in size, stormed Bristol Bay in a series of big runs. This year’s return smashed the previous high set only last year.

Meanwhile in western Alaska, the Yukon River’s runs of king and, more recently, chum—both mainstays of Native fishermen—have imploded, shutting down harvests for the past two years.

Salmon across the world have struggled as oceans warm due to climate change. But in Alaska's Bristol Bay, the world's biggest sockeye run keeps breaking records. Meet the fishermen who benefit from the warmer climate, and the scientists who are trying to answer the question on everyone's mind: How long can it last? Video by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

Scientists are trying to better understand what conditions improved to produce a steroid-like boost in recent wild sockeye runs.

They are also grappling with another question in a century of intensifying climate change stoked by human activities that release greenhouse gases: Will it eventually get too warm, and undermine the extraordinary productivity of Bristol Bay sockeye?

Bristol Bay Watershed map in southern Alaska showing the Alaskan peninsula and the main river and lake systems that make up the salmon's breeding habitat. Lake Nerka, Wood River, and the Naknek settlement are prominent on the map.
Image by Mark Nowlin/The Seattle Times.

Already there is one unsettling trend: Adult Bristol Bay sockeye in recent years have been steadily smaller as they return to spawn.

“There’s a tipping point somewhere,” said Daniel Schindler, a University of Washington fishery scientist who spends summers studying these fish. “How far are we from that? Will it be 10 years or 100? We don’t know.”

Two scientists wade in a creek. They both hold small metal counters in their hands as they scan the water.
Kat Hartwig, left, and University of Washington scientist Daniel Schindler count salmon in Pick Creek. They use a GPS to segment the river into 200-meter sections and he counts live fish while she counts dead ones, usually killed by bears or birds. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

The pace of this warming could have huge consequences for the world’s largest harvest of wild sockeye, which has emerged as a global model of a sustainable salmon fishery.

Most sockeye are netted during a brief few weeks in late June and July as they return home from years living in the ocean to try to spawn in five freshwater drainages spread across southwest Alaska.

This commercial harvest of Bristol Bay sockeye began back in the 1880s when schooners started to catch and salt the salmon. The development of canneries—and later freezing lines—by largely Washington-based processors helped stitch together the economic ties that still bind Alaska’s seafood industry to the Pacific Northwest.

About a hundred boats sit in a large body of water that is a murky brown color.
On Alaska’s Bristol Bay, fishing boats stand by for the next commercial opening on July 12 at “The Y,” near Naknek. This summer around 1,500 fishing boats—many based in Washington—worked to catch a record haul of Bristol Bay salmon. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

This year, the sheer scale of the harvest—unfolding amid the COVID-19 pandemic and global supply chain disruptions—intensified the seasonal challenges of the annual mobilization.

The preseason forecast cited the potential of a harvest of up to 60 million salmon, and shippers struggled to stockpile enough freezer containers to bring the fish to global markets.

To catch these fish, a fleet of some 1,500 gillnet boats converged in Bristol Bay, and more than 900 beach-based crews stretched setnets into tidal waters.

A fisherman lets a net loose into a pool aboard a boat deck that is full of red water. The fish squirm in the water as the net splashes down.
Will Buttram drops a brailer bag of salmon into a hold aboard the tender Bulldog at "The Y" on Bristol Bay. This year around 1,500 fishing boats worked to catch nearly 60 million salmon in Bristol Bay, and many of them delivered their catch to tender boats like the Bulldog. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

Processors flew in thousands of workers and contracted with an armada of vessels, ranging from World War II-era scows to Bering Sea crab boats, to ferry the fish back to the plants.

“Things get really tense, and we’re juggling, juggling, juggling,” said Blake Benson, fleet operations manager for Seattle-based Trident Seafoods.

workers in blue and yellow protective gear scan and sort headless salmon on a blue plastic conveyor belt inside of a processing plant.
Workers sort headed and gutted salmon at the Trident Seafoods processing plant in Naknek on Bristol Bay. The plant, while highly mechanized, still requires around 550 employees, including around 400 directly involved with fish processing, to keep up with the high volume of fish during a season. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

On July 11, in the late-evening twilight of Alaska’s summer, Michael Fourtner, of Adna, Washington, spotted a jumping sockeye from the bow of his boat, a promising sign that more were close by. Fourtner and his four crew members unfurled 1,200 feet of net from the stern deck in the choppy waters off the mouth of the Naknek River.

Since mid-June, fishing through days and most of the nights, they had already caught some 200,000 pounds of fish—more sockeye than Fourtner had ever brought in during his 12 years fishing the bay.

The best single haul of his career was on the previous night, when gusty winds prompted some fishermen to set anchor. Fourtner encountered what he described as a “wall of fish” as some 2,000 sockeye hit his net.

a fisherman's feet are seen standing among a slice of deck that is littered with caught and bloody fish.
Captain Mike Fourtner stands among salmon on the deck of his driftnet fishing boat Twin Tuition on Bristol Bay. Fourtner named his boat in hopes it will help pay for college for his 9-year-old twin daughters. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

This evening, Fourtner was eager for more. He was elated to see eruptions of whitewater along the net as sockeye got caught in the mesh.

“Holy smokes,” he said. “What a year. This is just phenomenal.”

Fourtner grew up in Homer, Alaska, where he started fishing for salmon at age 9. He settled in Washington in 2004 and returned to Alaska each year for his work as a Bering Sea crabber on the Time Bandit, a boat long featured on Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” In 2013, after 15 years on the boat, he got a call from his wife that she was pregnant with twin girls, and he quit to spend more time at home in southwest Washington.

Two fishermen hold a net in place while a third uses a wooden spindle to weave parts of the net together.
Captain Mike Fourtner, center, repairs a gillnet aboard the Twin Tuition on July 12. Holding the net are Jim Berg, left, and Tyler Minkoff. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

Fourtner now works as a sales rep for a marine engine manufacturer while fishing summers in Bristol Bay. Last winter he also found time to overhaul his 1991 aluminum fishing boat in his garage. He rechristened it Twin Tuition in hopes it would help pay the college bills for his daughters, now 9 and already eager for their first stint fishing.

In the predawn hours of July 12, Fourtner and his crew finally took a few hours to sleep, four of them collapsing into cabin bunks in a cacophony of snores and a fifth on a mat in the galley.

“I got to keep rolling because the fish are only here for a short amount of time. But you got to be safe,” Fourtner said.

The stern of a medium size boat is full of fish while two workers tends to their processing. The nets are rolled up and the engine is running on the dark blue waters. It appears to be late evening or before sunrise.
Crew bleed and store salmon aboard the Twin Tuition. Processors pay extra for fish that have been bled. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

The volatile mix of big loads of fish and bouts of rough weather can have grave consequences. This summer, at least four boats were lost—although none, as in some years past, resulted in loss of life.

Randy Shipman, of Sedro-Woolley, lost his boat, the Summer Solstice, early in the harvest.

His boat was drifting toward a boundary line, beyond which it would be in an illegal zone and subject to a fine. To speed things up, the crew pulled in the net without first picking out many salmon. This created a big, heavy pile in the stern. The waves got bigger, and then the boat suddenly rolled over.

One of Shipman’s buddies had been monitoring the whole fiasco and positioned his vessel nearby for the rescue.

Shipman’s season was over. Even if he could find another boat, his crew was unwilling to head back to the bay.

a large, pink sun sets along a mountainous horizon as ships sit in the waters of the bay. The sky is a deep blue, as is the water.
The sun sets behind fishing and support boats on July 11 near Naknek on Bristol Bay. The 2022 local sockeye season shattered the previous record, set just last year. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States.

A video screen hanging in a small office at the Trident Seafoods plant in Naknek displays a giant map of Bristol Bay with the locations of dozens of vessels contracted by Trident to gather the salmon caught from fishing boats.

Through most of June and all of July, this is where fleet operations manager Benson tried to puzzle together how to keep fish flowing into the Trident shore operation as well as a floating processor—or when the volume became too great, into more distant plants on the Alaska Peninsula. This task was complicated by big tides, which at a low ebb could make river channels impassable and sometimes even forestall offloading fish.

A worker sits at a desk in front of a large monitor showing a map of Bristol Bay. Beside him are rolls of multicolored sticker tags and a photo of a children's baseball team.
A map shows the location of Trident Seafoods-contracted tender and support boats operating on Bristol Bay. Each fish processor provides an array of support for their fishermen, including delivering groceries, cigarettes, and mail, which helps keep the fishermen on the water and catching fish. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

“We’re playing this game of chess. How much fish do we have coming in, and what vessels can we get them on and how much water do we have coming in and out of Bristol Bay?” Benson said.

Trident is one of more than 30 companies that processed the harvest. Many are based in Naknek, a small community where seafood companies have built bunkhouse campuses to lodge and feed their workers.

At Trident, some 400 men and women pulled marathon 16-hour daily shifts to keep pace with the processing of the salmon stowed in a long row of chilled tanks, each of which can hold 49,000 pounds of fish.

“We need all this capacity to get us through the next tide when we can take in more fish,” said plant manager Luke Forrestor.

Workers in yellow and blue protective gear slice salmon fillets and stack them in yellow baskets at an indoor processing plant.
Workers trim fillets of salmon at the Trident Seafoods processing plant in Naknek. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

Some fish were filleted or flown out by plane for fresh markets. Most ended up as headed and gutted, frozen then shipped by sea to U.S. markets.

Toward the end of the season, it appeared shippers might run out of freezer containers. But a series of storms slowed the fishing effort, which ended at the tail-end of July as Trident and other processors stopped buying sockeye.

By then the total harvest had reached 59.5 million fish—26% more than had ever been caught in a single Bristol Bay season. That was enough fish to serve a quarter-pound of salmon to every person in America.

A verdant mountain and valley are the setting for a crystal clear creek bed replete with scarlet colored salmon.
Salmon swim up Pick Creek near Lake Nerka in Alaska’s Wood-Tikchik State Park on July 21. Returning to their home waters in their final days of life, the female salmon dig redds, depressions in the gravel where they deposit their eggs for males to fertilize. The fish decompose, and their remains add important nutrients to the ecosystem. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

In the 1940s, when the catch dipped as low as 4.7 million salmon, the gargantuan scale of 2022′s summer harvest would have seemed like the stuff of science fiction.

Industry officials worried about the weak returns and were frustrated by then-federal management. They wanted fresh research that could yield a better account of the runs, a more accurate forecast of the next year’s harvest and more assurances of a sustainable harvest.

So in 1946 the Bristol Bay canneries gave the University of Washington $36,000 to take a closer look at the salmon runs. More than 75 years later, the industry grants, along with other funding, still support the university’s salmon research.

four researchers wade into water where there is a net. One researcher holds a fish.
Research technician Henry Gould holds a salmon during a scar survey at the mouth of Yako Creek in Lake Aleknagik. Some fish caught in gillnets escape, and their scars can get infected and impact their ability to reproduce. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

This has enabled generations of scientists and students—based out of a network of backcountry camps—to produce a remarkable long-term documentation of the freshwater ecosystem that sustains the sockeye.

At a remote shoreline site at Lake Nerka, a log cabin erected in 1949 is surrounded by more than a half-dozen other structures, including bunkhouses and a cookhouse near a garden patch of arugula and rhubarb.

A map of the northern part of Bristol Bay in southern Alaska, near Lake Nerka at Pick Creek, shows the site of a bear sighting along Pick Creek and a place called Camp Nerka across the lake.
Map by Mark Nowlin/The Seattle Times.

UW’s Schindler first came to this camp in 1997 and has been back every year in a season that now starts in late May and runs through mid-September. During the height of spawning season, he may wade 6 miles or more a day to count salmon in the creeks.

Through years of observations, Schindler and other UW researchers have documented some startling adaptations.

Seven young people inside a wood-lined room stand around a table and observe something small inside of Tupperware containers.
Students examine small fish from Lake Aleknagik on July 20 at a University of Washington Alaska Salmon Program research facility. From left: graduate student Brian Zhang, student Alex Coenen, research technician Henry Gould and students Jada Rasmussen, Juno O’Neill, Liz Voytas and Natalee Bozzi. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

In one shallow creek, the salmon that return are smaller and narrower than most Bristol Bay sockeye. These sleeker bodies give them a better chance of scooting across a gravel bar entry often covered with just a few inches of water, without flopping over or getting picked off by bears.

About half the Wood River drainage sockeye forgo creeks to spawn in the gravel beaches of nearby lakes. Those salmon often have bigger bodies since they spend their final days where the water is deep enough to offer more protection.

A graph titled "Surging Bristol Bay sockeye runs" reads: Bristol Bay salmon have been harvested commercially since the 1880s. Since 2015, the sockeye runs have been on a dramatic upturn, culminating in the record-breaking return of more than 78.3 million this summer. The return line stays parallel and below the harvest line consistently, from 1963 to 2020. 1973 has a low of 1.7M catch, 2022 has a high of 59.6M catch.
Image by Mark Nowlin/The Seattle Times. United States, 2022.

“We’re always humbled by not how much we know, but often how little we know,” Schindler said.

Schindler and other fishery scientists have looked to the freshwater and oceans for clues to the runaway sockeye returns of 2022, which by late July offered startling vistas of vast schools milling about patches of Lake Nerka’s blue-green water.

A large school of salmon at the mouth of a crystalline creek
Sockeye salmon gather near the mouth of Sam Creek. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

UW research records track a long-term warming trend that has resulted in the breakup of lake ice about two weeks earlier now than in the 1950s, according to Schindler. This increases the food supplies for young salmon, which, after they hatch, live in freshwater for one to two years.

But the biggest reasons for the record runs appear to be in the ocean, where they spend one to four years before returning to spawn.

Ed Farley, an Alaska-based federal scientist, helped to pioneer the study of Bristol Bay sockeye in a series of research cruises in the southeastern Bering Sea between 2001 and 2015. He sampled the fish during their crucial first year in saltwater when they must grow fast and accumulate fat to survive the winter. His studies consistently found more young sockeye during years with warmer temperatures in the southeast Bering Sea than in cooler years.

Farley said that in warm years, sockeye ranged farther offshore and shifted more of their diet from zooplankton to very young pollock, a fish found in great abundance.

An underwater camera view of the red salmon fish, close up.
Salmon swim in Sam Creek. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

In 2019, Bering Sea surface temperatures climbed as much as 9 degrees above the long-term average, according to an analysis of federal readings by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The young sockeye that encountered those conditions appeared to thrive, as they formed a big portion of the adults that returned to produce this summer’s record Bristol Bay return.

“These warming events have been very positive for the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon,” Farley said. “They grow pretty quickly early on, and we see a lot of them out there in our surveys.”

During their years at sea, the Bristol Bay sockeye forage as far west as coastal areas off Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and south into the Gulf of Alaska. During the past 70 years, this vast swath of the North Pacific has become more crowded with salmon due, in part, to a dramatic expansion in Asian and North American hatcheries.

In 2018, more than 5.5 billion hatchery salmon, mostly the fast-growing, short-lived pinks and chum, were released into the ocean—a more-than-ninefold jump from the 1960s, according to Greg Ruggerone, a Seattle-based fishery scientist who has studied both freshwater and ocean salmon for decades.

Ruggerone said that the big increase in the hatchery salmon, along with surging numbers of wild pink salmon in a warming ocean, have intensified competition for food in the North Pacific. Some wild runs of the longer-lived and larger kings—also known as chinook—have declined not only in the Yukon and other western Alaska rivers but also in many other North American drainages.

Two researchers stand in a creek. The picture is taken from above and shows the context of their location as a verdant forest in a valley surrounded by jagged rocky peaks.
Daniel Schindler and Kat Hartwig count salmon in Sam Creek on July 22. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

These changes also may help to explain a steady decrease in the adult size of Bristol Bay sockeye.

During this summer’s harvest, the average sockeye that spent three years at sea weighed 5.54 pounds, nearly 17% below the long-term average, according to sampling by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game.

“It’s quite significant,” Schindler said. “We know that smaller females have fewer eggs and smaller eggs. So big females are worth a lot from a reproductive standpoint.”

A researcher holds a salmon upside down to show how her belly is  ripped open.
Daniel Schindler holds a female salmon that had its eggs ripped out by a brown bear in Pick Creek on July 21. During periods of abundance, bears will sometimes "high-grade" salmon, eating only the eggs from the females and brains from the males. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

In July 2019, a heat wave hit Bristol Bay that offered a stark foreshadowing of the kind of summers that could become the norm later in this century.

Salmon can die if exposed for prolonged periods to temperatures above 68 degrees. The temperatures at the mouth of Bristol Bay’s Igushik River in 2019 climbed past 70 degrees, according to readings taken by skipper Camron Hagen.

Hagen observed thousands of sockeye milling in the tidal waters near the river mouth, and many perished long before they could swim upstream to spawn.

“The beaches were covered with dead fish,” Hagen said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Alaska state fish biologists confirm that thousands of salmon died from heat stress during the summer of 2019, but note that millions of sockeye still made it to spawning grounds around the bay.

“It wasn’t like we’re losing our spawning production because of this heat wave. But it was obviously killing fish,” said Travis Elison, a state district biologist.

Two fishers tend to nets while a third  throws a salmon overboard. They wear orange protective gloves.
In July, Sofia Dixon (from left), Cecilia White and Eliza Williamson pick fish from a setnet off Pederson Point near Naknek on Bristol Bay as part of Liz Moore’s team. Dixon is co-director of a performing-arts organization in New York, White is a geologist and science writer, and Williamson is an architect. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

Elsewhere, broader impacts to sockeye runs have been linked to prolonged heat waves. The Gulf of Alaska, which even in normal years typically has higher temperatures, saw intense warming in 2015-2016 and again in 2018-2019.

In a warming sea, why does the world’s biggest sockeye run keep breaking records?

Some runs of Alaska, Canadian and Northwest sockeye, which feed in the Gulf of Alaska, plummeted during this period. In 2020, for example, Canada’s Fraser River sockeye hit the lowest point on record with a run of fewer than 400,000 fish.

During the past two years, the Gulf of Alaska temperatures have cooled. And in 2022, sockeye populations in Canada and the Pacific Northwest rebounded.

On the Columbia River, as of Aug. 24, 663,174 made it past Bonneville Dam east of Portland, most headed for Canada — the biggest run since 1938.

But climate models forecast that the warming periods in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea will become more frequent and severe as the ocean absorbs more heat amid the buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

“This is where we are headed. The temperature could spike again,” said Nathan Mantua, a federal climate scientist who studies salmon.

Still, in this summer of bounty, Schindler in his forays through streams finds reasons for hope. These salmon are stubborn, resilient creatures.

He pointed to a sockeye with a fresh, deep wound from a bear bite. The fish, still alive, would likely fight on to try to spawn.

A bright red salmon's spine and bone structure is exposed in the middle of his body.
A male sockeye salmon struggles to survive after being bitten by a brown bear in Pick Creek. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.

If more creeks get too hot in July, Schindler expects sockeye can spawn in those waters later in the summer when the temperatures ease.

If entire rivers get too warm, then sockeye might evolve to come back to Bristol Bay earlier, in a cooler month.

But how much—and how fast—can the Bristol Bay sockeye change as greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere and set the stage for more heat waves?

“In the watersheds, they have lots of options to do what they need to do to survive,” Schindler said. “In the oceans, they may not.”

Salmon under turquoise blue water.
Salmon swim at the mouth of "C" Creek in Little Togiak Lake in Wood-Tikchik State Park on July 21. The name C was given to the creek by University of Washington researchers since the tiny creek does not have an official place name. Image by Loren Holmes/ADN. United States, 2022.


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