Sockeye Salmon and Humans

Humans prize sockeyes for their firm, beautiful meat. A strong or weak sockeye run can mean the difference between fortune and poverty for commercial fishermen, and sport and subsistence anglers wait eagerly for the sockeyes to return each summer. Not only are sockeyes the ultimate fish to smoke, dry, or freeze, but they are good fighters and fun to catch.

As I mentioned last week, the complex life cycle of a sockeye salmon requires an extensive river/lake system. Sockeyes spawn in the stream or river, and then the fry move into the lake where they feed and grow for one or more years before heading out to sea. This life cycle works best when man does not interfere by building dams, logging, digging mines or developing land near critical salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Unfortunately for the salmon of Bristol Bay, the richest sockeye spawning grounds in the world, the rivers where sockeyes spawn are near one of the largest copper ore deposits in the world. For the past several years, Alaskans have been arguing loudly about the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. After I describe the commercial and sport fisheries for sockeyes, I will explain the Pebble Mine debate in more detail.

Commercial Sockeye Fishery

 Sockeyes are the most valuable salmon for commercial fishermen. There aren’t as many sockeyes as pink salmon, but sockeyes are worth more per pound than pinks because their meat is firmer, they freeze better, and they have a richer flavor than other species of salmon. Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska has the largest commercial sockeye fishery in the world. On average, fishermen catch ten to thirty million sockeyes each year in the region during a short, intense fishery lasting only a few weeks. In 2017, 59 million sockeyes were caught in Bristol Bay, and processors paid fishermen $1.13 per pound. The total sockeye harvest for the state in 2017 was valued at $326 million.

Certain regions of Bristol Bay are particularly productive. In 2017, commercial fishermen in the Nushagak region caught over one million salmon on two separate days. On July 3rd, during a storm and in heavy seas, fishermen landed 1.5 million sockeyes, and several fishing boats sank or became grounded when fishermen battled stormy seas while heavily loaded with fish.

Sport and Subsistence Fisheries

 Sockeyes are important to the economy of Alaska, not only because of the commercial fishery but also due to a growing sport fishery that brings many visitors to the state. One of the most important fisheries to the residents of Alaska, though, is the subsistence harvest. Most subsistence fishing is done with a gillnet.

Sport fishing for sockeyes is an art. Sockeyes eat plankton, so unlike cohos, pink salmon, and king salmon, sockeyes do not aggressively chase a lure. Fishing experts suggest the best way to hook a sockeye is by using a bare hook or a hook with colored yarn tied to it. The angler then catches the fish by either accidentally hooking it in its mouth or by aggravating the salmon with continual casts until the fish snaps at the hook. Once the fish is on the line, it is a strong fighter

 Status and Trends

While salmon stocks in the lower 48 have declined significantly over the past few decades, sockeye salmon stocks in Alaska are doing well. Due to their economic importance, sockeyes are carefully managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but in recent years, the proposed Pebble Mine project near Bristol Bay has concerned many Alaskans about the future of the largest sockeye salmon run in the world.

The Pebble Mine is the name of a mineral exploration project hoping to gain the rights to mine a huge copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit in the Bristol Bay region near Lake Iliamna and Lake Clark. This deposit is estimated to be the second largest of its type in the world. Those who support the mine say it will create jobs, provide tax revenue to the state of Alaska, and reduce American dependence on foreign sources of these minerals. Those opposed to the mine, claim it will pollute the Bristol Bay watershed, possibly destroying valuable fish stocks, including sockeye salmon. If that happens, the strong fishing economy already present in the region could collapse, wiping out fishing jobs and income.

Nearly every copper mine in the world has polluted the environment around it by releasing water high in acids and contaminants. Plans for the open-pit Pebble Mine propose to impound contaminated water, waste rock, and mine tailings behind several earthen dams at the mine site. This mine would be situated upstream from the Kvijack River, the river with the single largest sockeye salmon run in the world.

The controversy over the Pebble Mine has been a major issue in Alaska since the mid-2000s. In April 2009, a Native delegation from the Bristol Bay region told the mining company behind the Pebble project that the Bristol Bay watershed was no place for an open-pit mine. The mine was put on hold in 2013 after the loss of funding partners, but it has recently gained the interest of other investors and is now back in the news.

I will be honest; I am opposed to the Pebble Mine, and support for the mine is low in Alaska. Anything that could destroy the pristine environment where millions of sockeye and other salmon return each year to spawn should not, and I hope will not be allowed.

Do you have an opinion about the Pebble Mine? I’d love to hear it!

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