Fat Bear Week does not last until October.
However, the brown bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve, which are broadcast live on Explore.org’s webcams over the summer, fatten up long before their upcoming hibernation. The reason for this is an exceptional sockeye salmon run in 2020 that will soon surpass the record for fish swimming on the main waterway (the Naknek River) that ultimately leads to the famous Brooks River in Katmai, where the bears feast. Reliable observations go back to 1963.
“There are all signs that we will set a new record,” Curry Cunningham, a fishing ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who is researching salmon runs in Bristol Bay, told Mashable. The record for sockeye salmon swimming up the Naknek River is around 3.5 million salmon that were set up in 1
Over the past week, bear camera viewers and katmai rangers have seen hordes of salmon leap across the water as they attempt to overcome the Brooks River waterfall.
“The run this year is just extraordinary,” said Mike Fitz, Explore.org resident naturalist and former Park Ranger in Katmai, told Mashable. There have been a lot of fish at the falls since late June, Fitz said.
And that means fat bears.
“The bears are currently benefiting from tons of salmon,” said Fitz. “The bears are extremely fat for this time of year.”
Of course, the bears aren’t nearly as fat as they were in September after eating high-calorie salmon for months. Take last year’s Fat Bear Week champion Holly as a reference.
A number of important factors have contributed to the large salmon runs in Alaska’s Bristol Bay that feed the Katmai region in recent years.
The salmon have large protected areas like Katmai, where they can breed and thrive. “These are intact ecosystems with very little human development,” said Cunningham. There are no dams in Katmai that prevent fish from reaching their habitats, and there are no industrial sites that pollute the water.
However, the Trump administration is in the region with numerous water treatment plants to inject mine water into streams, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline to power the mine, pits for mud-like mining waste (so-called tailings) and roads for trucks, and a brand new port for unloading mined material on ships.
“The bears are extremely fat for this time of year.”
“It’s about turning much of Alaska into an industrial mining district,” said Drew Hamilton, former assistant manager of Alaska’s bear-filled McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge in Alaska. Ecologists, biologists and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have concluded that the mine would adversely and significantly affect fishing in Bristol Bay. (The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release a critical environmental review of the potential mine next week, July 24.)
Overall, there are numerous salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed with a variety of large rivers this year, although not every river itself has had a strong, productive year. This is the advantage of conserving such a large area of land and natural resources: the overall system is robust, even if certain rivers naturally have fewer fish in a few years.
“Overall, our production is maximized,” said Cunningham. “As long as everyone [rivers] can thrive, you do better overall. “
In addition, Bristol Bay fishing is well managed, Cunningham said. This means that the state of Alaska ensures a sustainable number of fish that swim up the river every year (called “inhibition”). The fishing industry cannot over fish fish in Bristol Bay. As a result, wild fish continue to thrive in Katmai while supporting a huge Alaskan industry. In Bristol Bay, for example over 41 million Sockeye salmon were caught in 2018.
“There are enough fish for humans and there are enough fish for wildlife,” said Fitz. “There is something for everyone at the moment. This underscores the health of this area.”
The relentless warming of the oceans and climate change could, however, threaten Alaska’s sockeye salmon, a cold water species. The threats to more southern salmon species in the Pacific Northwest and California are already high. This includes rivers that become too warm for fish to reproduce successfully, changing ocean currents and marine heat waves.
So far, Bristol Bay salmon have largely avoided these threats because they live in a colder part of their habitat, according to Cunningham. However, it is inevitable that the oceans will continue to heat up this century as the oceans absorb over 90 percent of the heat trapped on Earth by humanity.
“Global warming is truly ocean warming,” NASA oceanographer Josh Willis told Mashable last year. The warming of the ocean can of course be limited if society ambitiously decarbonises in the coming decades.
The Katmai ecosystem is currently thriving. It’s obviously in a Brooks River full of jumping salmon and fat bears.
“Overall, the bears are very healthy,” said Fitz. “You will get full quickly.”