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Bristol Bay: Through the Looking Glass; Past, Present, and Future

Guest Editorial by Matt Luck

The Past
I first set foot in Bristol Bay in 1979, stepping off an airplane in King Salmon as part of the annual summer migration of commercial fisherman who flocked to southwest Alaska.

The wild sockeye salmon run had begun to rebound from the meager returns of the early- to mid-1970s. In 1973, the entire sockeye return to Bristol Bay totaled only 2.3 million fish. Acutely aware of the resource crisis, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game management biologists invoked strict harvest restrictions and the majority of those 2.3 million fish were allowed to return to spawning grounds. Favorable rearing and ocean conditions combined with ADF&G’s swift, decisive response to the predicament was extremely effective. In 1979, six years later, 38 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay. Of those, 18 million were allowed to escape into the major river systems, a testament to Alaska’s commitment to resource stewardship and responsible fisheries management.

That same summer I also experienced the wild trout fishery on the Naknek River in June, boiling smolt being chased by 10-pound, dime-bright rainbows. Combine those days with the memory of watching 2 million sockeye push into the mouth of the Kvichak River on one flood tide in mid-July, and that summer can be described as nothing short of magnificent.

There were other major changes brewing for Bristol Bay in 1979 that would alter the landscape forever. Recreational activity and guided tourism was growing in leaps and bounds. In 1980, Katmai National Park and Preserve was created with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The following years would continue to see unprecedented growth. Between 1982 and 1990 visits to the Brooks River/Katmai Camp associated with an outfitter/operator would grow from 243 visits to over 7,000. In 1982 there were three active outfitter/operators in the Alagnak drainage, a tributary to the mighty Kvichak River that accounted for 88 client trips. By 1990 there were 32 outfitter/operators and a total of 3,769 client trips. Bristol Bay had officially been discovered.

The Present
Fast-forward 40 years. Over 37,000 individual recreational fishing trips take place annually in the Bristol Bay region. Over 1,800 drift gillnet permits and better than 1,000 set gillnet permits fish commercially for sockeye salmon every summer. In the summer of 2017 the commercial fishery harvested 37 million fish in Bristol Bay waters, and 1- to 2 million sockeye bound for Bristol Bay were harvested in intercept fisheries on the Alaska Peninsula. Yet the Bristol Bay watershed, its estuaries and nearshore waters, are home to arguably the most pristine, productive and healthy cold-water fishery habitat in the world. How can this be? The numbers are huge both in terms of commercial harvest and recreational use. The answer is quite simple: Strict, science-based fisheries-management policy.

That and the ability to react and modify those policies and associated regulations as human impact and biological conditions change is the cornerstone of an effective management regime. Sure, the harvest of 37 million sockeye is staggering, but at the same time 21 million sockeye made their way past the commercial fishery to the spawning grounds. Yes, close to 40,000 anglers in Bristol Bay in one summer is astounding. But, trophy-only designations, catch-and-release requirements, equipment regulations and bag limits by species and area have combined to ensure a world-class Bristol Bay angling experience.

Don’t get me wrong, management decisions, regulations and policies have at times been extremely contentious and sometimes hard to swallow. We should be thankful to our predecessors for investing the energy, time and expertise—those choices have had clear benefits on the longevity and resiliency of the wild salmon all types of Bristol Bay fishermen and women now depend on.

Simply put, it’s all part of the plan, so don’t forget to give thanks to the stakeholders who worked together to create these policies and to the State of Alaska for the decades of dedication and investment in the sustainable resources and associated management systems that support the recreational, commercial and subsistence fisheries in Bristol Bay. These two essential items, intact habitat and management with an eye toward the future, work together to ensure Bristol Bay remains as it is today.

The Future
This is where things get a little fuzzy. We know what Bristol Bay looked like 40 years ago and we know what happened over the past four decades to create the physical, biological and political landscape we have today. What transpires from this day forward is much less clear.

Collectively, we are the “user groups,” the fly fishermen, the rafters, the commercial guys, the subsistence fishermen. In our minds, the wild salmon, the rivers brimming with cold, clean, clear water, it belongs to us. Public land and resources are a benefit of being a U.S. citizen; it’s an entitlement if you will.

I would contend that we can no longer take these things for granted. As I pointed out earlier, we have nurtured these resources for decades with sound management and by working together. Simply put, that’s not enough anymore. The onus of making sure these places, these wild salmon and trout, the Bristol Bay watershed, stay vibrant for generations to come—that responsibility now falls squarely on our shoulders.

There are issues in the wind: Pebble Mine, the proposed EPA repeal of the “Waters of the United States” provision of the Clean Water Act that currently protects headwater streams and wetlands in watersheds, the current administration’s repeal of the requirement for mining companies to show financial capacity to clean up pollution caused by operations, and for Alaska residents, the upcoming “Yes for Salmon” ballot initiative that would protect critical habitat adjacent to development projects.

Ultimately, the message is Don’t take anything for granted anymore. We need to educate each other and be unrelenting advocates for what we believe is right for ourselves, our families and the places we love. Rely on the professionals, search for scientific review of these issues, learn more by following publications from Alaska Region Trout Unlimited, the Save Bristol Bay campaign, Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Trustees for Alaska, Nature Conservancy for Alaska and many more—and keep tight lines and explore new rivers, of course. But from this day forward, always watch your back and assume the responsibility of advocating for the privilege to call yourself a fisherman.

 

Matt Luck is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, a lifelong fly fisherman and a lover of Alaska rivers. His company, Pride of Bristol Bay, distributes premium-quality wild sockeye salmon direct to consumers nationwide. Pride of Bristol Bay donates 10% of their pre-tax profit to the resource advocacy programs of Alaska Region Trout Unlimited.

This text originally appeared as the Alaska Traveler column in the March 2018 issue of Fish Alaska.

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