Reba Temple grew up begging her parents to let her fish with them in Bristol Bay.
Her mom and dad started fishing for sockeye in the early 1990s after fishing for years with their parents in Cook Inlet. When Reba was 14, her parents finally brought her aboard the fishing vessel FV Cloud 9. “My sister and brother and I were the only deckhands, and we were so excited,” Temple said. Her dad ran the boat and her mom showed them the ropes. ”From the get-go, it was my favorite time of the year.”
Nels Ure was a little younger when he started working the FV Coachman II with his dad, who also began fishing the bay in the early ‘90s. “I remember being on the back deck and having no idea what was going on,” he said. “You’re on a 32-foot boat and all of a sudden you’re reeling in 900 to 1,200 feet of net and having to figure out how to get all the fish out of the net.”
For thousands of families who fish Bristol Bay — the world’s largest sockeye fishery — working the family boat is a rite of passage. The adrenaline of the short season, with tens of millions of fish running into the bay’s six rivers over just a few weeks in June and July, gets many rookies hooked on a lifelong love of fishing. “When you first start out, it’s chaotic and jarring – and absolutely addicting,” Ure said. “The three to seven days that are the peak, the fish are charging upstream, and you’re going from hundreds of pounds to thousands of pounds in your net, which is really exciting.”
More than half the world’s sockeye salmon comes from Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska, where the state, scientists, fishing industry and Alaska Native tribes work together to sustainably manage the fishery. Last year, a record 82 million sockeye returned to the bay.
About 600,000 pounds of the 60 million salmon caught were carried fresh out of the Bristol Bay community of King Salmon (AKN) on Alaska Air Cargo freighters, destined for restaurants and grocery stores — and ultimately, diners’ plates — across the country and around the world.
“I get a little awestruck by the numbers coming in at the peak of the season,” said Shannon Stevens, Alaska Air Cargo sales manager for the state of Alaska. And while most of the Bristol Bay catch is frozen and carried out by barge, the cargo team is investing in more payload to feed the nation’s growing appetite for fresh salmon.
By the beginning of next year, we will add two new larger freighters, essentially doubling the fleet’s capacity. Those freighters will also be certified to fly long hauls over open water, including from remote communities like King Salmon to Seattle.
“Fresh is where the opportunity is, and we will have even more opportunity next summer,” Stevens said.
All hands on deck to keep Bristol Bay sustainable
The cooperative effort to manage Bristol Bay sockeye responsibly goes back more than 75 years, when the fishing industry asked scientists to track salmon returns, said Daniel Schindler, a fishery sciences professor at the University of Washington. “They came here with the intention of catching lots of fish, but they also wanted to do it right,” said Schindler, who has been studying the bay’s salmon habitat for 27 years.
The state Department of Fish and Game has fine-tuned its system to manage the returns of salmon to each river feeding the bay. “One of the reasons salmon management has been so successful in Bristol Bay is it’s really set up to be adaptive,” Schindler said. “If the runs come back weak, the harvest rates are reduced very quickly. Similarly, if a run comes back bigger than anticipated, the managers have the flexibility to open it up.”
Schindler said another key to the fishery’s sustainability is a commitment to protect the watershed habitat from pollution near salmon spawning grounds. And he said the fishery has also benefited from a bit of luck: So far, the warming of oceans and lakes from climate change has seemed to help Bristol Bay sockeye, with returns today far surpassing returns in the 1970s. In contrast, rivers further south in Alaska have seen declining returns as ocean temperatures have risen.
For the 2023 season, scientists forecast a return of about 50 million salmon to Bristol Bay, well above average, with a net catch of 37 million fish.
“The long-term goal isn’t about making the big buck just this year. It’s really been about how do we keep the system going for a long, long time.”Daniel Schindler, University of Washington fishery sciences professor
A chef’s sustainable choice
Seattle chef Renee Erickson grew up fishing for salmon in Washington state, and sources the seafood and produce for her nine restaurants as locally as possible. But five years ago, she decided to take her home state’s Chinook salmon off her menus.
“Salmon have been in my life forever, and I would love to go fishing here and feel OK about it,” Erickson said. “But the numbers of the returns are grim.”
Instead, she chooses to source salmon only from sustainable fisheries like Bristol Bay, which is called “an excellent choice” by the Wild Salmon Center, an organization that advocates for salmon conservation.
“In Bristol Bay, we know these fish are going to those rivers and that’s where they live and return to,” Erickson said. “It feels great supporting a fishery that has successful numbers and growing numbers, and it’s legitimately managed properly.”
Erickson enjoys slow-roasting and grilling Bristol Bay sockeye, but her team has a favorite way to highlight the fish:
“We love curing it because it’s so gorgeous,” Erickson said. “It maintains that insane color.”
For fishermen like Ure, there’s extra pride in seeing Bristol Bay sockeye on the menu at a restaurant in the lower 48, or stocked at one of the thousands of grocery stores that carry it across the country.
“I love seeing a product from the place where I fish,” he said. “I love telling a chef, ‘This is 100% a fish I caught!’ Even though the likelihood is very slim, it’s possible.”
Sustainable for the future
Ure, who lives in Naknek with his wife and young daughter, said the residents of the small communities nestled around the bay are invested in its long-term health. “Fishing supports so many economies: welders, all of the gear shops, net hangers, net menders,” he said, noting that fishing buoys local businesses year-round. “You have the actual salmon ecosystem, which is phenomenal, but then there’s an economic ecosystem that the salmon sustain as well.”
And now both Ure and Temple are looking forward to sharing the rush of the summer salmon run with the next generation. “It truly is one of the biggest dreams in my life to get to fish with my kids and show them Bristol Bay,” said Temple, who has 2-year-old twins named Bristol and Sam. “I had so much fun spending summers out there with my family.”
Ure said his daughter is already toddling around the family’s fleet and setnet sites. “I can imagine nothing greater than getting to spend our summers together bonding on the water, solving problems, and catching beautiful salmon,” he said.
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