Commercial Fishing in Bristol Bay
Naknek Setnetters

One of the more exciting summer activities in all of Bristol Bay, and possibly the whole state of Alaska, is commercial fishing for sockeye salmon. Bristol Bay is known as ‘the sockeye salmon capital of the world’. The six rivers (Naknek, Kvichak, Nushagak, Togiak, Ugashik and Egegik) that make up the commercial fisheries here in southwest Alaska produce more sockeye salmon, known as ‘red’ salmon, than any other place in the world. It is a multifaceted industry with each aspect being totally awesome in itself.

The aspect of highest priority is that of ‘escapement’, which is a predetermined number of salmon that management allows to ‘escape’ the commercial fisheries. These are the salmon that reproduce to insure the future of our great resource. In 1998 over 6,000,000 sockeye salmon escaped up the six rivers that flow into Bristol Bay to reproduce. There are over 1,800 boats and over 1,000 set nets that take part in this truly spectacular industry. The salmon are processed, for the most part, by on-shore based factories called canneries, where they can, as well as freeze, the salmon.

There are 14 major processors here in the area with 8 of them located in the entrance of the Naknek River. There are several reputable air taxi companies, both fixed wing and helicopter, offering tours over the commercial fishing grounds. There is also a land (bus) tour that offers a tour that specializes in commercial fishing information. The best time to see this very exciting activity is between June 23 and July 17.

History of Commercial Salmon Fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska
The act of commercially canning salmon on the west coast got its start in the small town of Washington, California in 1864. That first year the firm Hapgood, Hume & Co. canned 2,000 cases of sockeye salmon. As time went by, the tentacles of commercial salmon fishing stretched with alarming speed ever northward. By the late 1890’s there were companies that had ventured as far north as Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Island area of Alaska.

Just prior to the turn of the century, news of “red gold” reached the commercial fishing community. It was said that the six rivers (the Naknek, Kvichak, Nushagak, Egegik, Togiak and Ugashik) in Bristol Bay had more sockeye (red) salmon than any other river system in the world.

During the first 50 years of commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay, the fishing boats were restricted to sail power. When this restriction was finally lifted in 1951, it took only 7 short years to outfit all the boats (approximately 1,500) with diesel or gas engines. In the late 1920’s another law was passed restricting the length of the boats to 32 feet. This law holds true even today.

In 1974, the state of Alaska enacted perhaps the most significant restriction to date; that being, the limited entry permit system, which restricts the number of commercial fishing permits allowed to harvest salmon in the six river system here in Bristol Bay. There have been years in the recent past where the total run of sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay has exceeded 60 million fish. A very effective management allows over a quarter of the total run to escape up the rivers to ensure a very colorful and lucrative future. All this action happens in about 4 weeks (usually the 3rd week in June through the 3rd week in July) creating the ‘fastest paced commercial salmon season’ in the world. Commercial fishing is definitely the mainstay of our economy and a big reason why we boast of being the “sockeye salmon capital of the world”.

Source: Bristol Bay Visitor Guide

For more information download the full printable Visitor Guide and Business Directory