Of all the millions of sockeye that return each year and survive the gantlet of commercial and subsistence fishing in the bay, at least a million will enter the Wood River, a tributary of the Nushagak. That's a single-river population at least ten times greater than the recent annual returns for the entire Columbia River system. And unlike most other surviving runs in the U.S., which include hatchery-raised salmon, the Wood River population is completely wild.
More than differences in ecosystem integrity explain this wide gap in productivity. In Bristol Bay, fishery managers have limited the length of gill nets, the number of fishing permits, and the length of commercial boats. But the real genius of salmon management here is the strict use of "escapement numbers"—daily tallies of fish entering major spawning rivers—to determine how many can subsequently be taken by commercial, subsistence, and sport fishers. Escapement goals are based on long-term observations of the number of fish required to guarantee that, as Bobby Andrew says, "they always come back." The 2009 goal for sockeye on the Kvichak was 2,650,000; for the entire Bristol Bay watershed, it was 8,750,000.
What escapement-based management means in practical terms is that during the sockeye season—generally from mid-June to late July—those who rely on the fish live by the tides, because tides carry each pulse of salmon toward the headwaters. Whether it's the Bouker family with a setnet on the beach at Ekuk, targeting salmon headed for the Nushagak drainage, or Everett Thompson and his drift boat outside the mouth of the Egegik River, the commercial fishers of Bristol Bay can fish only during "openings," announced over the radio by state officials. Openings usually last six or more hours and can occur once or twice a day, or not at all for days at a time. They are periods of frenzied labor and, for those who are adept—and lucky—jubilation.
"It's like Christmas morning!" exclaims a radiant Ina Bouker, as she watches heads and tails splashing along the top of her net, held up by small buoys that stretch out into the spangled water. If so many fish are entangled near the surface, many more must be caught below. Indeed, as the incoming tide slackens, the net is so heavy with sockeye that Ina's husband, John, hitches it to a four-wheel-drive truck and drags it onto the shore. During this six-hour opening, Ina and John and their six children will harvest 18,000 pounds of fish from two nets. Across the bay Everett Thompson and his drift-net crew are well on the way to a 220,000-pound season, their best ever. "I love fishing," Thompson says. "Sometimes it feels like work."