For most of the past week, Kodiak has enjoyed sunny skies and warm weather.
Fisheries biologist Donn Tracy is praying for rain.
Tracy is the man in charge of sportfishing in Kodiak, and he’s got his eyes on the silver salmon run on the Buskin River, Kodiak’s most popular sportfishing site. Rather, he’s got his eyes on the lack of silver salmon.
Through Monday, however, only 480 silver salmon have been counted at the fishing weir in the river, the least ever counted at this point in the year. Last year, 2,439 silvers had been spotted by the same point in the season. Two years ago, 4,000 silvers had been counted by Sept. 10.
Take a hike to the weir on the green banks of the Buskin, and the reason for the disparity becomes apparent even before the weir comes into view. The sewage stink of rotting pink salmon is overwhelming, and along the weir itself, live pinks roil the river’s surface with foam, rolling alongside dead pinks in less than a foot of water.
Since the start of the year, Kodiak has had just over 34 inches of snow and rain. In a normal year, it has seen more than 49 inches to this point.
No official depth measurements are taken on Kodiak rivers, but the result is obvious to anyone who has dropped a hook in a stream -- the water is low.
Low water stresses salmon that swim upstream over exposed rocks, but this year silvers in the Buskin are also competing against a massive surge of pink salmon. Through Sept. 10, more than 74,000 pinks have been counted by the Buskin weir. Last year, 9,500 were counted in the same period.
On Tuesday, they foamed the water, boiling it with their fins as they attempted to swim past the corpses of pinks that have already spawned and died.
It is those corpses, Tracy said, that are the cause of the silver salmon absence.
“The bacterial consumption of those carcasses actually draws down oxygen levels in the river,” Tracy said. “We’ve had a situation in the past where it was lethal … (the salmon) just suffocated in the river.”
This year isn’t that bad, but it’s bad enough to keep silver salmon from swimming upstream. At Buskin Lake, the river is saturated at a level of 85 percent oxygen. By the time the river reaches Bridge No. 1, that oxygen level has fallen to 54 percent. “That’s well below an optimal level,” Tracy said.
For now, the silver salmon are biding their time in salt water and the lower river, where Chiniak Bay refreshes the river with fresh oxygen and fishermen are getting hits on their hooks. When the fall rains come, they will wash oxygen-rich water from the lake through the river, allowing the silvers to come. “We need at least an inch of rain in a 24-hour period or less,” Tracy said. “It will happen, it does every year; it just hasn’t yet.”
By mid-September, the silver salmon run is normally half over, and Tracy said fishing restrictions are possible if significant rain doesn’t come in the next week.
If it that rain arrives, there’s still time for a normal silver salmon run. In 2005, only 916 silvers had passed the weir by Sept. 10. Two weeks later, heavy rain fell and almost 10,000 silver salmon passed the weir in two days. By the end of the run, 16,500 silvers had been counted.
“We’ve just got to hope for some rain,” Tracy said.