Fish & Fisheries
Crab Fishing © Keith Colburn
Commercial fishing and associated fish processors have been the major industries in the region for many decades, accounting for nearly 75 percent of local employment. The world’s largest wild salmon runs also provide essential subsistence food for Alaska natives and support a multi-million dollar sport fishing industry.
Many places in the world have been over-fished. But careful management has enabled Bristol Bay to sustain healthy fish stocks, supplying wild caught seafood to the world, and ensuring thousands of sustainable jobs, indefinitely. Offshore oil development in Bristol Bay would devastate this fishery of international importance.
Distribution and Migratory Pathways of Sockeye Salmon in the Southeast Bering Sea © Alaska Marine Conservation Council
All five species of Pacific salmon – pink, chum, sockeye, coho and king – spawn in Bristol Bay’s rivers. The Kvichak River, which runs from Lake Iliamna to Bristol Bay, is home to the single largest salmon run on the planet, and the Nushagak River hosts the largest king salmon run in Alaska.
While wild salmon populations elsewhere in the world are threatened or extinct, salmon return to Bristol Bay in astounding numbers every year largely due to the sound, scientific management of the fishery, as well as lack of development in the region. A limited entry permit system restricts the number of commercial fishing permits allowed to harvest salmon in Bristol Bay, which enables enough salmon to escape capture and return upstream to spawn and regenerate populations, year after year. Scientists have also documented how Bristol Bay’s numerous undeveloped salmon streams allow for genetic diversity that helps stabilize populations.
Forty-two percent of the world’s harvest of wild salmon and 80 percent of the production of high-value wild salmon species such as sockeye, king, and coho salmon, come from Alaska waters. Bristol Bay is Alaska’s richest commercial fishery, and the productivity of Bristol Bay’s salmon runs are remarkable even by Alaska’s standards. The 2008 harvest of all salmon species in Bristol Bay was approximately 29 million fish, and the value of the commercial catch topped $113 million.
Salmon form the cornerstone not only of the Bristol Bay economy, but also its culture. Native people have been subsisting on salmon for thousands of years, and have built much of their culture and traditions around harvesting activities. More than 2 million pounds of salmon are harvested each year for subsistence use. Salmon also shapes the lives of non-Alaska Natives living and working in Bristol Bay, feeds birds and wildlife, and enriches the whole region with its nutrients.
Salmon begin their lives in rivers and streams, but they spend many years at sea, including several years in the shallow productive waters of Bristol Bay. Areas targeted for offshore oil and gas development overlap with areas used by young salmon for feeding, and migratory routes used by salmon when they leave and return to their spawning grounds.
Another serious threat to Bristol Bay salmon is the Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit mine right in the middle of salmon spawning grounds.
Halibut Nursery Grounds in the Southeast Bering Sea © Alaska Marine Conservation Council
Halibut, which is managed separately from other groundfish, is the world’s premium whitefish. It commands high prices in commercial markets, and is also an important subsistence food and a species sought by charter fishing operations in Alaska.
A large halibut nursery area is located in Bristol Bay and has been closed to fishing since 1967. This crucial fish habitat overlaps with areas identified for oil and gas leasing. Impacts from oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay would have wide-reaching affects on the people and businesses who depend on a healthy groundfish fishery.
Red King Crab
Red King Crab Habitat and Protected Areas in the Southeast Bering Sea © Alaska Marine Conservation Council
In 1980, at the peak of the king crab industry, some Alaskan fisheries produced up to 200 million pounds of crab. That catch has since declined almost sixtyfold, and the fishery is highly restricted as a result. In the winter 2005–2006 season, 250 boats caught 14 million pounds of red king crab in four days.
Nearly all of Bristol Bay’s red king crab catch comes from within the 5. 6 million acre area targeted for oil and gas leasing. Crab nursery and rearing habitat is especially vulnerable to oil and gas activity because pipelines would very likely be sited in these areas. Federal studies have predicted that offshore drilling in Bristol Bay would have “major” impacts on the red king crab population and fishery.