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At a Glance

'At a Glance' offers a brief summary of key findings for each of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions.

Dive Deeper

Select 'Dive Deeper' for an in-depth look into the patterns and processes leading to the diversity of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions we see today.

At a Glance: A global salmon stronghold on the front line

Bristol Bay is sockeye salmon country. The region is a land of great inland lakes, ideally suited to the juvenile life of sockeye salmon. The habitats here are virtually pristine and intact with a notable absence of mining and offshore oil and gas exploration in the region. The long proposed Pebble Mine, situated at the intersection between the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds, would unquestionably and permanently change this salmon landscape.

Yup’ik names for salmon

  • Taryaqvak, Kiagtuk, Aciirturtet (king salmon)
  • Iqalluk; Kangitneq, Aluyak (summer chum salmon)
  • Cayak, Sayak: (sockeye salmon)
  • Caqun: (sealskin bag used as a container for poking dried salmon fish in seal oil)
  • Cin’aq: (salmon fish, usually chum or king, aged through the process of burying)

Below are key findings for the Bristol Bay region. For the full story, click on Take a Deeper Dive.

More sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay in a typical year than all species combined in the Columbia River prior to European contact.

Since 2001, the Bristol Bay region has averaged an annual return of over 30 million adult sockeye salmon, making it the largest sockeye salmon fishery on Earth. For perspective, this is approximately three times the number of salmon of all species combined that returned to the mighty Columbia River in its hay-day, prior to arrival of Euro-Americans.

Across regions, Bristol Bay has among the smallest human footprint on the landscape, reflecting the region’s small population (6947 local residents in 2015). There are virtually no roads and only 25 documented culverts. Logging, mining, and invasive species remain absent at this moment in time. Bristol Bay is a stand out exception with respect to sockeye salmon abundance.

Cumulative annual change in sockeye abundance by region. Jeanette Clark and Robyn Thiessen-Bock. Estimate of total Alaskan salmon abundance by region, 2000-2015. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1BR8QG4.

Although the abundance of salmon remains high, local participation in commercial fisheries has declined in recent decades, threatening the social sustainability of long-time fishing communities.

The cultural value of salmon among those who call Bristol Bay home is immeasurable, especially among the Aleut, Dena’ina Athabascan, and Yup’ik peoples who practice mixed commercial and traditional salmon livelihoods. Subsistence fishing remains a major part of life for both Alaska Native and non-Native residents, and is often supported by commercial fishery participation and cooperative efforts among social and kin networks. For many, the controversial development of Pebble Mine, a large-scale copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit in the region’s headwaters, threatens this iconic salmon stronghold. Subsistence, sport, and commercial fishing interests and others have been united in their opposition to Pebble Mine for more than a decade.

Photo: Alaska State Library, John E. Thwaites Photo Collection (P18-118)

Subsistence salmon fishing is central to the way of life of Bristol Bay communities, with relatively stable harvests and participation over the last two decades.

Comprehensive household harvest surveys show that salmon comprise 58% of the total harvests of wild resources for home use by residents of Bristol Bay communities. Participation in the Bristol Bay subsistence salmon fishery has been stable. Since 1990, 1,143 subsistence permits have been issued annually, 83% to local residents; the recent 10-year average (2007-2016) is 1,123 permits. Since 1994, the largest portion of the Bristol Bay subsistence harvest has been sockeye (78%), followed by Chinook (12%), coho (6%), chum (4%), and pink (1%).

Estimated subsistence harvest of salmon in the Bristol Bay Management Area, 1983 – 2016. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Subsistence and personal use harvest of salmon in Alaska, 1960-2012. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F18P5XTN.

Bristol Bay salmon governance has faced declining local ownership of limited entry permits and the highly controversial proposed development of the Pebble Project.

Commercial salmon fisheries arrived early in Bristol Bay, starting in the 1890s. With declining runs in the 1970s, Bristol Bay figured prominently in the implementation of the Limited Entry permit system, with the second-largest number of permits issued, after Southeast Alaska.

Market conditions and demographic changes have resulted in migration of many permits from local to nonlocal and nonresident fishermen. Local residents have often combined participation in commercial fisheries with stable patterns of subsistence production since 2000. Salmon runs have recently been at historic levels, but between 2000-2018, Bristol Bay salmon fisheries were declared a disaster on two occasions.

Tammy Lin, George Eliason, Photo courtesy ASMI

Even though Bristol Bay harvest is second in volume to Southeast, its historical revenue is twice the size of revenue generated by Southeast salmon fisheries.

About one-third of Bristol Bay fishermen and two-thirds of Bristol Bay processing workers live in Washington, Oregon, and California. In order to illustrate the ripple effect of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery, in 2010, the harvest value associated with 29 million sockeye salmon being caught was $165 million. Salmon processing added another $225 million to this value for a total wholesale value of $390 million. The total value of Bristol Bay seafood exports in that year was $250 million, which amounted to about 6% of the total U.S. seafood export.

Tobias Schwoerer. Regional commercial salmon permit earnings by residency status, Alaska, 1975-2016. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1WW7FZ2.


Boraas, A. S., & Knott, C. H. (2013). Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Characterization of the Indigenous Cultures of the Nushagak and Kvichak Watersheds, Alaska (No. Submitted to the Bristol Bay Assessment: Environmental Protection Agency. Volume 2, Appendix D.)

Braund, S. J. (2017). Set the net: The heritage and significance of fish camp and wild salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Doctoral dissertation, University of Montana. Retrieved from

Dye, J. E., & Schwanke, C. J. (2012). Report to the Alaska Board of Fisheries for the Recreational Fisheries of Bristol Bay, 2010–2012 (Special Publication No. 12–17) (p. 62). Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Fall, J. A., Holen, D., Krieg, T., La Vine, R., Stickman, K., Ravenmoon, M., … Stariwat, J. (2010). The Kvichak Watershed Subsistence Salmon Fishery: An Ethnographic Study (Technical Paper No. 352) (p. 235). Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Gho, M., & Farrington, C. (2016). Changes in the Distribution of Alaska’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Permits, 1975-2015. (CFEC Report 16-3N). Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Hilborn, R., Quinn, T. P., Schindler, D. E. & Rogers, D. E.(2003) Biocomplexity and Fisheries Sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100, 6564–656.

Holen, D. (2014). Fishing for community and culture: the value of fisheries in rural Alaska. Polar Record, 50(255), 403–413.

Holen, D. (2017). Subsistence and Commercial Fisheries Through the Lenses of Culture and Economy in Three Coastal Alaskan Communities (Dissertation). University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.

Landgon, S. (1980). 1980 Transfer Patterns in Alaskan Limited Entry Fisheries. Final Report for the LImited Entry Study Group of the Alaska State Legislature. Anchorage, Alaska: University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Lichatowich, J.(20010). Salmon without rivers: a history of the Pacific salmon crisis. Island Press.

Pullar, G. L. (1992). Ethnic Identity, Cultural Pride, and Generations of Baggage: A Personal Experience. Arctic Anthropology, 29(2), 182-191. Retrieved from

Ringsmuth, Katherine.  2013. At the Heart of Katmai:  An Administrative History of the Brooks River Area.  Research/Resource – Management Report NPS/AR/CRR/2013-77.  National Park Service. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Schichnes, Janet and Molly Chythlook.  1988. Use of Fish and Wildlife in Manokotak, Alaska.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 152.  Dillingham.

Schindler, D. E. et al. 2010. Population diversity and the portfolio effect in an exploited species. Nature 465, 609–612.

Stariwat, Jory and Theodore M. Krieg.  2016. Lewis Point Fish Camp Ethnography.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 425.  Anchorage.

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