Like many places in Alaska, Kodiak is experiencing drought symptoms this summer, and with it lower water levels in many of the island’s rivers and streams.
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning and Graham Briley is cranking open the Buskin River weir. It’s basically a loose gate that lets water, but not fish through. Briley is a state Fish & Wildlife crew lead, and it’s his job to count the salmon passing through the weir every morning. This morning, there’s not much movement.
“Usually at this point, the fish are blasting through there, but they’re not this morning,” Briley says, looking into the water.
This weir will usually see pink salmon in the highest numbers throughout the summer. Cohos are ramping up their season. Sockeyes come through too, although in August their run is winding down.
Briley says when he gets to the bank in the morning he’ll often see dorsal fins making their way upstream. This morning the water is a warm 52 degrees, though it’s gotten as high as 57 recently. It’s also just a half foot deep, with rocks poking out in the riffles. In some parts you could probably walk across the river without getting water in your shoes.
“Salmon are incredible when they decide that they’re going upstream, they’ll make that look easy,”Briley says. “Even though there’s hardly any water. The fish will be halfway out of water, and it’ll just skirt right up it.”
After about 20 minutes waiting by the weir opening, Briley closes it again and marks a “zero” for each salmon species in the log. He says there are a number of possible reasons we didn’t see any fish pass through today.
One possibility is that, like most days this month, the sun is out — fish tend to move upstream on cloudier days, since they’re more vulnerable to predators in sunshine.
Another factor is that the warm water and low water levels could be causing salmon to hang out in the ocean until conditions get better. Diminishing oxygen levels in the water are another concern. But Briley says it’s impossible to draw any conclusions yet.
A week and a half later, Briley is out at the weir like usual. It rained a little over the weekend. Not enough to raise water levels, but temperatures do seem to be going down a bit.
“Yeah, the water temperatures are steadily dropping,” he says. “We had 11 Celsius [52 degrees Fahrenheit] this morning. Which is good news. But we need a little bit more water for the coho to run in earnest.”
This year is unusual, that’s for sure. But Briley emphasizes, salmon are just unpredictable sometimes.
Case in point, this Monday, exactly one week after his zero-count morning, Briley saw 7,000 pink salmon during his shift. By the end of the day, the count was at 10,000.
Briley says that’s not an abnormal count, just surprising given the zero-count the week before. “Right there in this ripple,” he says, pointing downstream of the weir, “it was just salmon backs. And through there they were spraying water as they were propelling themselves up that riffle.”
Kodiak broke several daily temperature records this summer, and has had low, though not record-low rainfall. Tyler Pollum, Kodiak Area Manager at Fish & Game says conditions at the Buskin this year aren’t unheard of. “It’s really, really low,” he says over the phone. “I mean, it’s not uncommon for us to see extremely little water. This happened about four years ago. And then it happened about 10 years ago to where we had, you know, this really, really dry summer.”
But escapement numbers at the Buskin weir are looking okay so far. Sockeye were actually above average by the end of July at 11,380, compared to the 10-year average of 10,984. At nearly 32,000, pinks are slightly below the average. As of Tuesday, Cohos were the only laggards — 44 so far, with an expected count above 800 by this time in August.
Like Briley said, it’s possible they’re waiting for higher water levels before they move upstream.
The National Weather Service predicts the island will likely see rain this weekend, though it remains to be seen how big a bump it can give water levels in the Buskin.