Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Over 132 years of commercial effort, now more than 2 billion salmon have been harvested from the Bay’s waters. In fact, the 2 billionth salmon was landed sometime, by someone, on July 6, 2016.
It fell to Bob King, the longtime news director at KDLG and now avid fish historian, to announce this milestone in an essay he penned last fall.
“Since the canned salmon industry came to to Bristol bay in 1884, fishermen have landed 1.99 billion salmon, 93 percent of which were sockeye.” King wrote. “It took 95 years for Bristol Bay to produce its first billion salmon, the two billionth fish will come just 38 years after that.”
King had been quietly watching the numbers for years. After the Deptartment of Fish and Game issued the forecast for the 2016 salmon run to Bristol Bay, he knew this would be the year. Fish and Game confirmed King’s tally, and decided that the 10,033,455th salmon harvested this season would mark two billion. As the run took shape, it was clear that salmon would be landed on Wednesday, July 6, an appropriately cool and rainy day in Bristol Bay.
At Dillingham’s Kanakanak Beach, set netters were headed out for an opener.
“We caught it this morning, about two o’clock!” said Coffee Point set netter Corey Evans, with a common response. Evans also offered reflections on the fishery and the milestone shared by many too.
“It’s impressive it’s gone on for this long and I think it says something about the management, that we can keep it going like this,” Evans said. “You see a lot of fisheries that have trouble through the years and this one seems to be going pretty strong. That’s pretty nice to see.”
I let Steve Becker, another Coffee Point set netter, know about the famous fish soon to be harvested.
“Really? I’m going to catch it,” he said, not missing a beat.
“How do you know it’ll be you?” I asked.
“How does anybody know who it’s gonna be?” Becker said. “It’s gonna be me.”
That’s exactly the point King reinforced in his essay.
“Whoever catches the 2 billionth salmon will never be known. Fishing will probably be fast and furious when next year’s catch tops 9 and a half million,” King wrote. “Anyone can claim credit for catching the 2 billionth salmon. And everyone should.”
“Yeah we’re going to catch that, then we’re going to mount it, frame it, sell it on eBay,” Kyle Belleque said. Belleque fishes with his family at Coffee Point. What does the milestone say about the Bay?
“It’s an ecological wonder, I mean, it’s a magnificent display of raw nature,” Belleque said.
On Wednesday afternoon, salmon were picked from gill nets in Ugashik, Egegik, Naknek-Kvichak, Togiak, Igushik, and Nushagak. The milestone fish came from somewhere, anywhere in Bay.
Matt Shawcroft and his four kids put their net in the water just after two o’clock. Maybe they caught it.
“We are picking the 2 billionth fish in Bristol Bay today!” Shawcroft said, rallying his troops to the cause. “Any one of these fish we pick could possibly be fish number two billion. So this is a special day in Bristol Bay.”
As they stretched their net from shore, a hundred pounds of sockeye filled the meshes, and generations two and three of Shawcroft set netters began picking them out, laying them in the brailer bag’s icy brine.
“Ok it looks like Emma got fish 2 billion. James you might have to be fish two billion and one,” Matt said.
“How do you know that was 2 billion?” James asked his dad. “Maybe it was fish … nine million … nine hundred … and ninety nine ….”
The rain turned from a drizzle to a downpour. Perfectly typical summer weather in Bristol Bay.
“Alright James, so we hit 2 billion today. You picked out one of those. What are the odds you’ll be here to pick the 3 billionth?” I asked.
“576 to 1,” he quipped, eliciting a few chuckles.
“Do you want to stick with this business long enough to pick the 3 billionth in another 30 years?”
“I don’t know.”
“But I bet you’ll be glad to know that it will be there, right?”
“Yeah I know it’ll be there, but I don’t know if I’ll be the one to pick it,” he told me. His older sister said she’d be the one to pick that next milestone, too.
The 3 billionth may be aways off, but not an unreachable goal for these young fishermen.
Skipper Howard Knutsen has been picking salmon from the Bay’s waters for the last billion plus. He also landed the milestone fish, pulled from near the mouth of the Ugashik River. According to CFEC records, at 86, Knutsen is the oldest actively fishing drift permit holder in Bristol Bay.
“It’s a great honor, it’s a big surprise,” said Knutsen, standing aboard the F/V Lady Helen, looking surprisingly serene, clean, and refreshed mid-season. 2016 is his forty-fifth year fishing these waters commercially.
One of Knutsen’s salmon got the VIP treatment, delivered straight to Governor Bill Walker’s doorstep in Juneau a day later. BBEDC’s Norm Van Vactor thought that’d be a nice gesture.
“One of the issues I’m sure that the governor’s dealing with is a lot of pros and cons and comments about the PFD,” Van Vactor said. “Well we can speak to Alaska’s other PFD, which is our Bristol bay salmon resource. Just like the financial PFD this is a resource that needs to be protected for generations and generations.”
The milestone salmon could’ve been a pink, a coho, a chum or a king, but in Bristol Bay, the overwhelming odds are that it was a sockeye. From the drift boat or set net skiff, it was sold to a tender or driven up a beach and ended up at a processor. Then it was canned, cut, frozen, or flown out fresh.
Icicle Seafoods’ Samantha Russell showed off the milestone fish after it had made its way into her plant late Wednesday evening.
“I’m pleased to announce that I’m holding the 2 billionth sockeye salmon to be harvested out of Bristol Bay,” Russell said, standing at the sorting line in Icicle Seafoods’ Wood River plant.
“That’s a good looking fish,” I asked.
“It sure is,” she said. “That’s about a ten pound round fish, a hundred percent scales, firm, number one quality.”
“Where will this end up?”
“We’re gonna pack this fresh and fly it out on Alaska airlines tomorrow, and this fish will wind up somewhere on the East Coast,” said Russell.
“So the 2 billionth Bristol Bay salmon is going to be on somebody’s dinner table this week?”
“It should be on someone’s dinner table by tomorrow evening,” Russell added.
When will Bristol Bay celebrate the next billion?
“With continued scientific management of the salmon resource, maintaining the fish’s natural habitat and a little good luck, Bristol Bay fishermen might look forward to catching its 3 billionth salmon in 2054,” Bob King posted in his essay.
By the time the 2016 season wraps up, this fishery will be another 25 or 30 million salmon closer to that next milestone.