Salmon set-up

The fleet is ready, but the fish — 
and the processors — get the last word

By Charlie Ess

The waters of Bristol Bay might pass for anywhere else in the vast near-shore waters of the Bering Sea if not for a curious array of specks — hundreds of drift boats —defining the gray waters of its fabled fishing districts.

We're 1,400 feet up and humming along at 115 knots in a Piper Cherokee when the first concentration of boats appears on the horizon at Egegik, renowned for its slug of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon each summer. It's July 7, a few days past Egegik's traditional peak of the Fourth of July, but the word is that the fish are running late this year and that the brunt of the run may materialize in the coming week.

That assessment leaves hope for the bay's grand predictions for a harvest of more than 31 million fish. Since last winter, the industry has been abuzz with the prospects of a year like the bay hasn't known since the 1990s.

Lending credence to the possibility of a record harvest is that the fishery has been building steadily from 24.5 million sockeyes in 2005 to last year's harvest of 29.4 million sockeyes. But the larger question, also looming on the minds of the industry since last winter, is whether the processors can handle this year's bounty.

Processing capacity as a limiting factor to the success of the Bristol Bay fishery has been a conversation topic since 1995, when fishermen saw a heyday harvest of 44.2 million fish. That year, no shortage of shore-based plants, floating processors and cash buyers (some of whom paid $1 per pound), were on hand to sop up the volume.

During a three-year period beginning in 2001, the bay suffered catastrophic harvests of less than 15 million fish. On the heels of waning production, interest in Bristol Bay sockeyes diminished.

Cash buyers, many of them rumored to have gone broke from the bidding wars ("pissing matches," in processorspeak) of the 1990s, have since been classified as extinct by the fleet, and a survey this spring noted that only 13 companies had filed intentions of buying fish in the bay.

That the processing sector may be ill equipped to handle an onslaught of fish becomes glaringly obvious by the scarcity of tenders within the fishing fleet. Aside from a few tramper ships anchored far offshore of Egegik, the waters are void of floating processors. Below the wings of the plane, hundreds of drift boats lie on anchor, indicating a closure, but I will learn shortly after we land that the season is all but wide open, that the fish have come back but the processors haven't.

I'm headed to the Ugashik, where seasons have been won and lost by fishermen who've committed to its later runs and unpredictable openings.

In the contemporary history of the Bristol Bay fishery, the Ugashik District has been a dark horse. With recent annual harvests that range from 2 million to a little above 3 million sockeyes Ugashik would hardly satisfy the bay's fleet of 1,350 drift boats and the district's 56 setnetters.

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

Join the Conversation