One Alaska bay is booming with salmon, for now

Almost everywhere else, climate change is driving salmon fisheries to failure.

On a mid-July afternoon, when the tide was starting to come in on the Naknek River, the Bandle family’s commercial fishing nets lay stretched across the beach, waiting for the water to rise. With the fishing crew on break, Sharon Bandle emerged from a tar-paper-sided cabin that serves as kitchen and bunkhouse with a plate of tempura salmon and a bowl of cocktail sauce. Everyone dug in.

Here in southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Bandle family has fished by setnet for nearly 40 years, anchoring nets hundreds of feet long on the beach, then stretching them perpendicularly into the river’s current. The webbing hangs like a curtain from a line of softball-size corks, intercepting sockeye salmon as they swim upstream to their spawning grounds. Crews of two or three in small aluminum skiffs pick the salmon from the nets; processing plants on the far side of the river head and gut the catch, then ship the bulk of it to China and elsewhere for additional processing.

Noah Bandle, 7, and a crew member are on the way to sell their salmon catch to a nearby tender boat.

Bristol Bay’s sockeye harvest has long made up about half of the global catch of this species, in a seasonal blitz as short as it is enormous: The fishery lasts a mere six weeks. Each summer, 15,000 seafood processors, boat-based fishermen, and setnetters—including families such as the Bandles—gather here to support an industry worth more than $2 billion in 2019. Some fishermen will net enough cash to live on until the fish come back the next year. And this year, Bristol Bay outdid itself, notching the largest sockeye run in the region’s recorded history with an astonishing 66 million returning fish. Even more astonishing, this season capped nearly a decade of extraordinarily high salmon returns in Bristol Bay, where sockeye harvests have reached more than 50 percent above the most recent 20-year average.

But such riches are localized. Outside of Bristol Bay, salmon fisheries are failing, including those on British Columbia’s famed Fraser River, on Alaska’s Chignik and Copper Rivers, and in Cook Inlet. Five hundred miles north of Bristol Bay, Yukon River salmon runs have totally collapsed.

Scientists believe that climate change is boosting salmon numbers here in Bristol Bay, even as warming temperatures and other factors seem to be driving the fish to extinction elsewhere. For salmon and humans across the North Pacific, rapidly warming temperatures are creating both winners and losers. As fish totes fill to bursting in Bristol Bay, people elsewhere are left holding empty nets.

But even as more salmon are returning to Bristol Bay, some fishermen here worry that it might be time for a bust.

The Bristol Bay region is the size of Ohio (population 11.7 million) and home to about 7,000 people, two-thirds of whom are of Yupik, Dena’ina, or Alutiiq descent. No roads lead to this part of the state, which is crisscrossed by rivers and bogged in wetlands. The region’s more than two dozen Native villages and communities are accessible only by boat or plane. But every summer, about 8,500 fishermen descend on the bay in a tightly regulated industry that limits participation to permit holders and their crew.

The Bandle’s fish camp—as these remote fishing operations are often called in Alaska—is one among about a dozen along the south side of the Naknek near the river’s mouth. Setnet outfits such as the Bandles’, plus about 1,000 others in this watershed, are responsible for almost a quarter of the bay’s total sockeye harvest. Drift fishermen, many of whom arrive from Washington State, net the rest of the haul.

A family harvests salmon from a setnet. They may fish the site several times a day.

As the fish return year after year, so do the families that net them. Sharon Bandle, 73, and her husband, John, 78, have been coming to this stretch of beach from Anchorage since the early 1980s, when they began setnetting to augment their teacher salaries and spend the summer together as a family. Their daughter, Tiffany, 41, also a teacher, started fishing as a preschooler and now brings her husband and two kids to help run the operation.

Noah, 7, likes to drive the four-wheeler and, in the skiff, help untangle salmon from the net. Bristol, 4, is this year’s “flounder saver.” She plucks the fish—which have mushy flesh and no commercial market—out of the webbing and chucks them overboard to swim free. Otherwise, the kids have the run of the beach, making forts out of plastic totes they find around camp or wading into a nearby creek to catch finger-length sticklebacks. “It’s kind of a clean, pure life,” Sharon said.

For all of the members of this fishing community, being here is about far more than the income. Behind the Bandles, set back from the beach, the Chase family owns a small, corrugated-tin cabin. Evelyn, 55, grew up in the nearby village of South Naknek and fished with her mother, an Aleut Native. Although Evelyn and her husband are raising their family on the outskirts of Anchorage, they return every summer to fish with their four grown children and Archie, their adopted 9-year-old, who has made fast friends with Noah.

Evelyn Chase stands outside her cabin, surrounded by gear. Every year, family members and close friends spend weeks fishing for salmon and living together at Chase’s site.

“We have not missed a summer, regardless of price, regardless of whatever,” Evelyn told me. This year, her first grandchild, nine months old, made his debut at fish camp. With such a huge crew, the Chases aren’t getting rich, but fishing has helped her children understand their family history and taught them how to work, and the bay’s big runs, Evelyn explained, put a little extra cash into her kids’ hands when they return to school and other jobs at the end of the fishing season.

Scotty Savo can’t imagine life without fishing. His operation, based out of a white house with a bright-blue roof, lies just uphill from the Chase cabin. Scotty, 31, grew up across the river in Naknek and now resides in Bellingham, Washington. He has been setnetting here since he was a kid and now fishes with his 10-year-old son, his 15-year-old nephew, and a few hired crewmembers. A boat builder, Scotty has crafted a fleet of stout skiffs tailored for Bristol Bay’s huge salmon returns. These bigger boats, which sell for $100,000, enable fishermen to catch, ice, and transport larger loads of fish and to work in rougher waters. With the good salmon runs in recent years, “they pay for themselves pretty quick,” Scotty told me.

Not surprisingly, as salmon fisheries in other parts of Alaska have faltered, fishermen have pivoted toward Bristol Bay. Doug Bowen, the president of Alaska Boats & Permits, a broker for commercial fishermen, has seen this firsthand as fishermen rush to sell permits and boats in stumbling salmon fisheries to buy Bristol Bay permits and boats, which can’t exceed 32 feet in length. Likewise, seasoned fishermen here are buying faster boats with larger holds to compete for a larger slice of this expanding pie. “None of the salmon fisheries around the state have been performing like Bristol Bay,” Bowen told me. “Everybody’s wondering just how long this string of record-breaking seasons can last.”

Fishermen give a lot of credit to Alaska’s strict fisheries management for Bristol Bay’s huge salmon returns in recent years. The number of fishing permits stays constant no matter the size of the run, and state managers open and close the fishing to allow an adequate number of salmon to pass upstream in order to protect spawning populations. While scientists acknowledge careful management, they also link the boom to warming temperatures.

In Bristol Bay’s lakes and streams, where salmon are born, ice is forming later in the year and melting sooner. “With climate change, we have a longer growing season,” Daniel Schindler, a lead researcher with the University of Washington’s Alaska Salmon Program, told me. Schindler has been studying Bristol Bay salmon since the 1990s, spending summers at a remote field camp amid prime sockeye spawning habitat. The longer growing season means more microscopic plankton for young salmon to gorge on, he explained, so newly hatched salmon are growing and maturing faster and heading out to sea as smolts a full year earlier than they did 60 years ago.

Bristol Bay sockeye spend two or three years at sea, where warmer ocean temperatures and reduced sea ice also seem to be benefiting them. Last year, ocean and land temperatures across the globe were the second highest in the 141-year-long record. Right now, Bristol Bay temperatures are in a kind of “sweet spot” for sockeye, says Greg Ruggerone, a scientist who has studied Pacific salmon for more than 40 years.

But outside that sweet spot lies devastation. Bristol Bay is on Alaska’s western shore, open to the waters of the Bering Sea and bound to the south by the Alaska Peninsula. Below this long finger of land, the Gulf of Alaska stretches as far south as British Columbia, where the Fraser River was once an incredibly productive sockeye fishery that annually saw nearly 10 million—and sometimes up to 28 million—returning salmon. But the river is heating up, and now running above 68 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature stress threshold for the fish, twice as often as it did before 1950. Last year, fewer than 300,000 sockeye straggled upstream. And scientists are predicting that the Pacific Northwest will continue to get hotter and drier, warming already-tepid waters and causing flows so low that salmon can’t pass upstream.

In Alaska, too, rising temperatures threaten salmon and other marine species. Since 2014, successive ocean heat waves in the Gulf of Alaska have been reshuffling the food chain less than 50 miles south of Bristol Bay. Warmer ocean waters—up to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average—have meant there have been less phytoplankton and fewer small fish, which serve as prey for larger fish and seabirds. About 1 million common murres, a black-and-white seabird, starved to death from 2015 to 2016 in the Gulf of Alaska and as far south as California; dozens of fin and humpback whales died amid “the Blob,” as the massive patch of warm water was known; and the Gulf of Alaska’s cod population plummeted, cancelling a lucrative commercial fishery last year.

In the Gulf of Alaska—where ocean water is generally warmer than in the Bering Sea—some streams are seeing temperatures high enough to damage runs of king salmon, the most valuable salmon species, prized for its rich, oily flesh. And in recent years, this region has seen lower than usual sockeye production and, in some cases, a shutdown of sockeye fishing to protect dwindling kings. The state of Alaska has made numerous pleas for disaster declarations. “It’s very possible that the Gulf of Alaska has moved past this threshold that has allowed for favorable conditions,” Schindler said.

The Bandle crew returns from the tender after selling their catch. It’s the end of the day, time to have dinner, enjoy a drink with the family, and go to bed, hoping there will be more salmon tomorrow.

Even in Bristol Bay, there are hints that the ecosystem is shifting toward what could be a temperature limit for salmon. During the unusually hot summer of 2019, tens of thousands of salmon went belly-up in Bristol Bay rivers when warm water essentially induced heart attacks in the fish. Some rivers were clocked at higher than 70 degrees—11 degrees warmer than what the state of Alaska stipulates is safe for fish migration. And in some cases, fish that were harvested were so warm, fishermen had a hard time chilling them to the temperature that commands a premium from processors.

The conditions of 2019 could be a glimpse into the future, Schindler said. “The big worry is, where is the tipping point?”

On top of all this, Bristol Bay sockeye are getting smaller. The average fish this past summer weighed only 4.5 pounds, more than half a pound lighter than the average fish from 2020. This observation continues a long trend of shrinking fish in this region and in others. “You have to keep dropping your net size,” Scotty Savo said. The sockeye he caught this summer could swim right through the larger webbing he used in years past.

Researchers don’t have data to confirm why fish are getting smaller, but “we think it’s because of a buildup of hatchery pink and chum salmon in the ocean,” Schindler told me. About 5 billion young salmon are pumped annually into the North Pacific by hatcheries in the United States, Russia, and Japan. Even though there are no hatcheries in Bristol Bay, the region’s sockeye travel widely during their years in the ocean, crossing paths with millions of hatchery fish.

The hatchery industry favors pink salmon because they’re voracious feeders and fast growers. But when pinks are numerous, Bristol Bay sockeye max out at a smaller size. With hatchery releases at an all-time high, evidence is mounting that this glut of hatchery pinks is consuming the foundation of the marine food web, essentially “grazing down the pasture,” Ruggerone told me.

Many fishermen in the region brush off these big-picture, ocean-wide problems, instead focusing on what feels to them like a more direct threat: For years, fishermen and tribal groups in Bristol Bay have been fighting to halt the development of an enormous gold, copper, and molybdenum mine near the headwaters of the region’s salmon-filled rivers. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently denied a key permit required for the project, and the Environmental Protection Agency is moving toward long-term protection of the region, opponents are still wary that the Canadian company behind the effort could force it through just the same.

Despite these challenges, Bristol Bay’s sockeye run continues to be a singular bright spot in an ocean of bad news. Failed king and chum runs farther north, on the Yukon River, highlight the unpredictable consequences of climate change, as different salmon species respond in different ways—and not even northern waters are protected.

To make up for this year’s Yukon River salmon crash, seafood processors in Bristol Bay donated tens of thousands of pounds of frozen salmon to Yukon River communities, where the annual arrival of salmon is engrained in local cultures, Serena Fitka, the executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and a Yupik Native, told me. “But that’s just a fraction of what they usually harvest,” Fitka explained. And donated fish don’t provide the harvest’s cultural benefits: the chance to bring families and communities together, and to pass along to children how to catch and use salmon and care for this important resource. “All of that is missing,” she said.

Indigenous peoples have been fishing in the Bristol Bay region since time immemorial. Evelyn Chase’s great grandfather fished the shores of the Naknek River, and no doubt his ancestors pulled fish from the rivers and headwaters of this region too. Commercial fishing here began with the opening of the first cannery in the 1880s. More than a century ago, these facilities, built with old-growth Douglas fir shipped up from the Pacific Northwest, housed and fed thousands of workers from across the region, and around the world, in segregated quarters—Alaska Native, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican. Evelyn’s father was a beach boss for one of the five canneries that used to hum along the south side of the Naknek, and her mother ran a setnet site back in the days when cannery trucks rumbled down the beach to pick up fish. For generations, salmon have occupied both the cultural and economic centers of this region.

Salmon caught in a net at the mouth of the Naknek River.

But the rising tide of salmon in Bristol Bay hasn’t lifted all boats. Since the 1970s, when Alaska began restricting fishing by doling out sellable permits to those who had historically participated in the fishery, half of the permits held in local communities have been lost—mostly through sale to people outside the region—and today, less than one-quarter of fishing permits are owned locally. And higher salmon harvests have inflated the price of Bristol Bay permits and boats, which means that many local residents can’t afford the $500,000 or more it can take to enter the fishery.

The village up the road from this setnetting community—South Naknek, population less than 100—might once have benefitted more widely from the salmon boom. But the canneries that used to provide employment here and in other villages in a region with few alternatives have shut down in the decades since World War II, victims of consolidation, lower salmon returns in years past, and a market shift from canned to frozen fish.

In front of the Bandles’ fish camp, the wood pilings of an old cannery still stud the beach, and the family has repurposed cannery refuse to suit its needs. The family converted massive, rusted-out fuel tanks into storage sheds, and enormous metal retorts—nearly head-high pressure cookers used to vacuum-seal tin cans—are anchored at the top of the beach to serve as a protective barrier against erosion, an increasing problem in the Bristol Bay region that might be linked to lack of sea ice.

As this region continues to enjoy a salmon boom, scientists and fishermen alike wonder what lies ahead. Next summer, Daniel Schindler will be looking for impacts of 2019’s extreme warm temperatures as the first offspring from that generation return to spawn. Scientists are eager to learn how salmon will respond as water temperatures continue to rise, and as hatchery releases continue without any coordination or limits.

No one knows what shrinking salmon size means for the future of this fishery. In the Atlantic, off Canada’s eastern shores, cod grew smaller before their stocks crashed completely in the 1980s and ’90s. But even as Schindler acknowledges that Bristol Bay’s historically huge salmon runs cannot go on forever, he is optimistic that salmon can adapt to changing conditions. The solution, he said, is to protect salmon habitat from development—such as mines, roads, and ports—so that as the climate continues to warm, salmon have the best shot at adapting and spawning.

At fish camp, Tiffany Bandle and her family live by the tides, not the clock, which determine the rhythm of setting and picking nets, feeding hungry crews, and snatching sleep when they can. On this remote stretch of beach, there are no emails to check, no pressure of outside work, and no news of the world at large. Coming home to Anchorage at the end of the season, Tiffany saw reports of the catastrophe on the Yukon River. “I feel horrible,” she told me. “I could put myself in those shoes [and imagine] what it would do to my family.”

But as long as salmon return to Bristol Bay, Tiffany knows she and her family will too. Like everyone at the edge of this river, Tiffany hopes that her children will one day take over the family’s fishing operation. But when she thinks of salmon runs failing elsewhere, she can’t help but wonder, “Could that happen to us?”

Lead image: Every summer, fishing permit holders and crew members gather for a little more than a month to fish for sockeye salmon on the Naknek River in southwest Alaska. Families, friends and crew live together in remote camps, catching salmon as they swim upriver.

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