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A little over a year ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated that 54 million sockeye salmon would return to Bristol Bay, the world’s richest salmon fishery. It was a confident prediction – that number is 40 percent more than the mean of the last 10 years. And you know what? They crushed it: The salmon run was the largest in years.

A small portion of that run was captured by Jason Ching, who works with Alaska Salmon Program and shot this rather astounding film (below) while his team was conducting surveys on Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s largest lake and home to 2.5 million returning sockeye. We were so blown away by the throngs of fish and Ching’s footage that we caught up with him to learn more:

The video was produced to give the viewer the feeling of joining our research group for a day of work. The video starts and ends at our research station and field camp on Porcupine Island, in Iliamna Lake, Alaska. Throughout the middle of the video the viewers are seeing aerial surveys of sockeye salmon aggregated to spawn at several different locations around the east end of the lake.

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During the 2014 and 2015 field seasons, we began to explore using UAS (unmanned aerial systems) to gather population estimates of sockeye salmon on spawning locations around Iliamna Lake. We conducted these aerial surveys across several different stream, beach and island spawning sites in conjunction with on-the-ground counts. The video shows some clips of these aerial surveys, and I think really speaks to the efficacy of using drones not only to capture stunning footage, but also for advancing research techniques in the field.

This 2015 season saw one of the largest returns of sockeye salmon to Bristol Bay and especially the Iliamna Lake system in recent years. The large abundance of salmon speaks not only to how well the largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery is managed, but also illustrates how productive such intact natural systems and diverse habitats can be.

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.

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