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Alaska Fish Factor: Ups and Downs for Alaska Salmon Season

17 August 2015
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - Alaska’s salmon season so far has been characterized by ups and downs, and it will be a stretch for the total catch to make the forecasted 221 million fish.

“It just depends on how these late returning pink salmon at Prince William Sound performs, and whether or not pinks pick up at Southeast. It’s possible, but we would still have to harvest around 30 million more salmon,” mused Forrest Bowers, Deputy Director of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Division.

One of the biggest fish stories of the season, of course, was the surprising double runs of sockeye salmon (reds) to Bristol Bay. As soon as a slow going first run petered out and the fishery was declared a bust, a surge of late reds caught everyone by surprise and pushed the catch to nearly 36 million fish.

Alaska’s sockeye salmon fishery sometimes accounts for almost two-thirds of the value of the total salmon harvest. A statewide tally of 51.5 million by mid-August 14 makes it unlikely the sockeye harvest will reach the projected take of 58.8 million fish.

Reds might be the big money fish but pinks are fishermen’s bread and butter, and Prince William Sound scoops the story there. Record returns to some hatcheries and better than expected wild pink salmon returns have pushed catches above 75 million and the humpies are still coming home. Will it top the Sound’s record 93 million pinks taken in 2013?

“You never know,” Bowers said.

Conversely, the much anticipated pink salmon boom at Southeast Alaska has yet to materialize with the catch nearing 23 million.

“There’s still a bit of fishing time remaining and the harvest will continue to tick upward, but right now it doesn’t look like we’ll hit that forecast of 58 million pinks,” Bowers said.

The statewide catch forecast for pink salmon this year is 140 million; the take by mid-August was 128 million fish.

Other salmon highlights:

Cook Inlet’s sockeye harvest of 2.7 million is just slightly higher than last year’s.

Kodiak’s sockeye catches (2.2 million) have been lackluster, while the pink salmon catch of 14 million is above average.

The Alaska Peninsula has been another bright spot for reds. Fishermen have taken 5.2 million sockeyes so far, nearly two million more than last year. And pink salmon catches of nine million compare to less than one million in 2014.

Chum catches in the Kuskokwim systems are poor, but sockeye catches at 55,000 so far are “reasonable.” Escapements for both sockeye and Chinook salmon are looking better.

Slow chum fishing is still the pattern on the Yukon Rivers, where a 450,000 chum catch is down from over 600,000 last year.

Norton Sound is having a back to back bumper season for chum salmon with the catch nearing 150,000, compared to a total take of 106,000 last year.

Kotzebue fishermen also are enjoying a good plug of chums, with 245,000 taken so far. Better yet, they have a buyer.

Overall, as Alaska’s total salmon harvest nears 196 million fish, Bowers calls it a good season.

“I think perhaps the protracted timing at Bristol Bay and the different ways the runs have come in have skewed people’s perceptions of what the season has been like,” he said. “But taking nearly 200 million fish in one year is a large harvest.” 

Groundfish reprieve - Trawlers are back out fishing for cod and flatfish in the Western and Central Gulf of Alaska, meaning bigger paychecks for Kodiak’s large resident processing work force.

The boats got a reprieve from a closure in May when they tripped a new 2,700 bycatch cap on Chinook salmon. At the time, only half of the annual cod quota and just 10 percent of the flatfish were taken.

This is the first year that Chinook bycatch limits are in place for Gulf trawlers which have a combined allowance of 32,500 salmon, split among different fisheries and sectors. Fisheries for pollock, rockfish are well below their respective bycatch limits, as are the fleet of catcher processors targeting cod and flats.

That allowed for some redistribution of Chinook to the tied up trawlers, said Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator for the Alaska region at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted in June to request by emergency order that an additional 1,600 Chinook be provided as bycatch to the cod and flatfish trawlers for the remainder of 2015.

“Given the fact that we are all well below our limits in the other sectors, the Council felt that amount was appropriate. It also is the historic average amount of Chinook salmon that the fleet uses from May until the end of the year,” Merrill explained.

Emergency orders are used very infrequently, Merrill said, and in this case the move was based on the economic impacts to Kodiak and its resident workforce caused by the early closure.

“Depending on how you calculate it, that represents about $5 million in ex-vessel (dockside) value and $12 million in first wholesale value,” Merrill said. “Those numbers also don’t accommodate the fact that there are downstream affects - anytime you shut a fishery there are other economic impacts on processor workers, purchases in the community, utilities, other things like that. And that is definitely something the council considered when making the recommendation. 10

The pollock, cod, perch, flounders and other ‘groundfish’ caught by Kodiak’s fleet of about 35 trawlers comprises the community’s largest and most valuable fishery – roughly 386 million pounds worth more than $73 million at the docks in 2014.

"Shutting down the trawl fisheries builds a hole in Kodiak's landings profile that erodes labor hours and affects these year round resident processors," said Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, adding that nearly all of the Chinook taken as bycatch are donated to food banks and hunger relief programs.

Merrill said the Council will begin to revisit the Gulf Chinook bycatch caps in October to see if there are better management solutions.

Fish fact - If you don’t fish for a living or don’t reside in a fishing region, why should you care about fish prices? Various state taxes on fish deliveries equal 3 – 5 percent of the dockside values of the catch, and are shared 50/50 between state coffers and local areas where the fish are landed. Those fish bucks are distributed each year at the whim of the Alaska legislature.

With commercial catches on the order of 5 to 6 billion pounds per year, adding or subtracting just one penny per pound makes a difference of nearly one million dollars for the state and local governments each.

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