In Alaska’s northern Bering Sea, a commercial pink salmon fishery emerges

Climate change has brought the fish to further north waters. Now seafood companies have followed.

By Yereth Rosen - August 4, 2021
Fishing boats crowd Nome’s inner harbor — and more are likely to come as climate change drives some commercial species north from their current habitats in Alaska waters further south. (Yereth Rosen)

At the Bering Strait port of Nome and elsewhere in Norton Sound, the commercial fishing industry is seeking to take advantage of oceanic changes that have brought waves of pink salmon north.

Pink salmon, the most plentiful of Alaska’s five salmon species, are mostly netted in waters further south. But they have been showing up in larger numbers in the northern Bering Sea. With just a two-year life cycle — compared to five or more for king and sockeye salmon — pink salmon populations are quicker to change territory as ocean conditions warm.

[Warming conditions are making northern Bering Sea more friendly for pink salmon]

This year, for the first time ever, a seafood processor from outside the region has set up shop in Norton Sound to buy pinks, creating a strong market for a commercial harvest.

Seattle-based Icicle Seafoods brought two floating processors north to operate in and around Nome, along with tenders to collect fish from harvesters at sea.

The activity is starting out small, said Jim Menard, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Nome-based area manager. So far, there is just one local fisherman participating in the harvest, Adem Boeckmann, plus some fishermen brought by Icicle to the region for the temporary harvest.

Despite the slow start, Boeckmann is optimistic about the prospects for future pink salmon harvests.

“It’s exciting because we have this huge resource that’s untapped,” he said.

Commercial pink salmon fishing is not entirely new to the Bering Strait region, Menard noted. The local processor, Norton Sound Seafood Products, has in the past bought some pink salmon, though “that was an afterthought,” Menard said. Generally, the preference is for salmon with higher market value — such as sockeye salmon, which in Alaska typically commands prices paid to fishermen that are three or four times those for pink salmon.

This year’s pink salmon run is not especially big, Menard said. But — as was the case last year — the run of chum salmon is dismal. That means there is plenty of capacity for processing pink salmon, and the species that was once held in low regard is now getting serious consideration, Menard said.

[Pink salmon catches in Nunavik are raising red flags for biologists]

The entry of Icicle into the Norton Sound business has been accompanied by the introduction of purse-seining in Norton Sound. The technique, in which nets are encircled around fishing areas and then drawn to close, is widely used in more southern Alaska areas like Prince William Sound. But it has proved more difficult to master in the shallower waters of Norton Sound, where salmon swim closer to shore, Menard and Boeckmann said. Fish are smaller than in past years, meaning adjustments have to be made in net mesh size, they said. And this summer’s weather has been bad, with heavy rains and high winds making operations difficult, they said.

“There’s been a bit of a learning curve,” Boeckmann said.

This is the first year he has tried Norton Sound salmon fishing, he said. Normally, he harvests halibut and crab. He decided to enter the pink-salmon business to support what he believes will be a good opportunity for the local economy in the future. “I did it out of principle,” he said.

The pink salmon harvest provides some economic compensation for a second consecutive lost cruise season in Nome.

The Bering Sea isn’t the only place where pink salmon have moved expanded their territory.

The species has been caught across the Canadian Arctic, from the west to Nunavik.

They’ve also seen explosive growth in Norway and Finland in recent years, even as native Atlantic salmon their have declined. Those fish are thought to have spread from a program in which Soviet researchers intentionally released the fish into rivers in Northern Russia.