Toward the end of summer, Alaskans and tourists flock to the famous Seward Silver Salmon Derby. This event is made possible by coho hatchlings from the state’s William Jack Hernandez Hatchery and Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s Trail Lake Hatchery. But silver salmon sportfishing isn’t the only show in town. CIAA also provides the Seward area with late May’s Resurrection Bay sockeye runs.
This popular fishery boosts the area’s early summer sockeye catches and lures snaggers from around the state. It’s the result of an agreement CIAA made with the state more than 30 years ago.
CIAA takes over at Bear Lake
The Seward silver salmon boom began after 1964, when the State of Alaska launched an early fisheries enhancement program at Bear Lake, near Seward. In 1989, the state handed its program over to CIAA to keep the Seward derby going. At the same time, CIAA was given the opportunity to enhance Resurrection Bay sockeye fisheries.
The natural sockeye run in Resurrection Bay was minimal to salmon fisheries enhancement. The sockeye escapement into Bear Lake averaged just under 5,000 fish a year from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s.
An interesting and little-known fact is that this sockeye return during these years was boosted by a couple of years of much larger runs. These larger runs were a direct result of the state treating Bear Lake with a pesticide called rotenone to kill off predator species for the enhancement of coho fisheries. These coho enhancement activities had an unintended positive effect on the sockeye runs.
The state took note of this and started to consider lake rehabilitation efforts that included planning for sockeye returns, not just coho.
Recognizing the valuable role salmon aquaculture could play in the Resurrection Bay salmon fisheries, CIAA began enhancement activities using the Trail Lakes Hatchery at the same time as when it took over the coho program in 1989.
This facility raises sockeye to the fry or smolt stage and releases them into nearby waters. Under the deal, CIAA also took over the Bear Lake Weir, where summer crews count sockeye and coho smolt leaving the lake. They also count returning adults and collect eggs and milt for the hatchery.
This year, CIAA expects to release around 1.2 million fry into Bear Lake and another million smolt directly into Resurrection Bay. After a few years at sea, the sockeye will use their homing instincts to return to Resurrection Bay. CIAA estimates 89,000 reds will start showing up at the end of May 2023.
Sport fishermen unpack snagging gear
When sport fishermen set out to catch sockeye in Resurrection Bay, they reach for their snagging gear. Sport fishermen can catch up to 6 reds a day, although this bag limit is occasionally increased in-season as the run comes in. Sport fishermen use weighted snagging hooks known as “Seward Dry Flies.” These hooks can snag a fish anywhere on its body. Snagging in saltwater is legal in Alaska except in areas where it’s specifically prohibited.
This fishery is also a great opportunity for families. “We love the freshness of the ocean-caught reds. If we could, we would deep sea fish but we like snagging at the end of the bay, it’s safe enough for our small children,” said Susan Hough Miller.
Enhancement tax and cost-recovery keep the fishery going
The Resurrection Bay sockeye fishery is essentially self-funding. Smolt released to Resurrection Bay and migrating out of Bear Lake return to the bay. Commercial fishermen harvest these reds, which supports CIAA through a two percent State Salmon Enhancement Tax. Some fish are allowed to pass the Bear Lake Weir into Bear Lake for brood stock.
CIAA also contracts with a fish processor that uses cost-recovery boats to catch some of the fish, which returns additional revenue to operate Trail Lakes Hatchery and Bear Creek Weir.
These commercial fishing revenue streams provide the sport fishery at no cost to those fishermen. If you are snagging sockeye salmon from the shores of Resurrection Bay, you can know that if you see a commercial salmon seiner fishing offshore, it may be the cost-recovery boat that is capturing these fish so CIAA can keep the cycle going.