Sockeye harvests wind down; pinks and chums slow going

  • A fishing vessel sails out of Auke Bay on Aug. 12 near Juneau. Hatchery production of pinks and chums in Southeast have been slow to materialize so far this season, with chums headed for one of their lowest harvests on record. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl/For the Journal)

As Alaska’s salmon fisheries transition away from sockeye and kings to pinks and chums, the harvest results so far look mixed.

May, June and July are the main harvest months for sockeye salmon across Alaska, beginning in Prince William Sound and reaching a crescendo in Bristol Bay throughout July. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasted a total sockeye harvest of 41.7 million sockeye salmon for the 2019 season. Some sockeye are still being harvested, but as of Aug. 11, the count stood at 53.7 million sockeye, more than 43.1 million of which came from Bristol Bay.

Bristol Bay’s harvest blows away even the large harvest from 2018 of 41.7 million, though it didn’t quite reach the all-time record. The Prince William Sound harvest is about 2.5 million sockeye, and the Cook Inlet harvest is about 1.9 million as of Aug. 13. The Kodiak harvest was about 1.64 million as of Aug. 13.

While Prince William Sound’s sockeye harvest is close to its preseason forecast, Upper Cook Inlet fishermen are about 1.5 million fish shy of their preseason forecast of about 3 million sockeye.

Constrained by low late-run king salmon returns to the Kenai River, managers closed setnet fishing in the Upper Subdistrict on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet on Aug. 5 and Aug. 8, with a possibility of reopening if king salmon escapements improve on the Kenai. The closure continued Aug. 12 for Upper Subdistrict setnetters. The drift fleet was scheduled to fish its normal period.

“Kenai River late-run king salmon escapement will continue to be monitored on a daily basis and if escapement projections estimate the SEG (sustainable escapement goal) will be achieved, the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet fishery may be reopened,” the closure announcement stated.

The commercial closures to shield kings come at the cost of exceeding escapement goals in the Kenai River; as of Aug. 12, more than 1.7 million sockeye had passed the sonar in the Kenai, about 400,000 fish more than the upper end of the in-river goal and 500,000 fish more than the upper end of the sustainable escapement goal.

The Kasilof River sonar has counted about 376,184 sockeye as of Aug. 11, greater than the upper end of the biological escapement goal for that river but still within the optimum escapement goal.

And so far, pink and chum results across the state are tepid at best. The statewide preseason forecast predicted a rosy harvest of 137.8 million pinks and 29 million chum, which would have been a record chum harvest. Though pink harvest has been good in Kodiak so far — as of Aug. 13, fishermen there are on their way to the preseason forecast of 27 million with 14.4 million harvested so far — it hasn’t lived up to expectations in Prince William Sound yet.

As of Aug. 12, only 17.6 million pinks had been harvested in Prince William Sound. At this point, nearly 25 million pinks would need to be harvested per statistical week through the end of the season to reach the forecast, and the odds of those numbers appearing are relatively low.

Warm weather and drought conditions in Prince William Sound may be holding back escapements, though. Purse seine commercial fishery manager Charles Russell said the escapements of pink salmon into streams across the region have been delayed as fish shy away from the extremely warm water in creeks, waiting for temperatures to cool and rain to fall.

“We were already in a drought scenario moving into the season, and that heatwave just exacerbated the situation,” he said. “In the low water and extremely warm water temps we were seeing around the sound, salmon were holding offshore. They didn’t have any urge to move into stream mouths like they typically do. It’s delayed the fisheries here. Obviously, we manage on escapement in streams, and if we don’t get escapement in streams, it’s hard to justify a fishery.”

Catches are improving, though, after a slow start. The aquaculture associations have met their cost recovery goals and escapements are catching up, Russell said.

However, with underperformance from the Solomon Gulch Hatchery — the run is estimated to finish at about 10 million to 12 million pinks as opposed to the 20 million forecasted — it seems unlikely that the area will reach its preseason forecast of 64 million fish, he said.

Chum runs look likely to disappoint, too. Southeast Alaska’s salmon hatcheries had collectively projected about 10 million chum salmon to be harvested in that area, courtesy of a large parent year return. However, that run has yet to materialize, and at this point seems unlikely. As of Aug. 9, commercial fishermen had harvested about 2.5 million chum.

“Based on our harvest so far, it looks like we’re going to have one of the lower harvests since the program for chum salmon began,” said Andrew Piston, a research biologist with Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries in Ketchikan. “Over the last decade, (the chum harvest) averaged about 10 million, and the way things are shaping up, we’ll be lucky to get about half that.”

It’s hard to say what happened to the chum salmon that were predicted to come back this year.

The forecasts for chum are produced by the hatcheries, which collectively produce about 90 percent of the chum harvested in Southeast Alaska. The wild stocks are returning in decent numbers, but the hatcheries are having trouble harvesting enough chum, Piston said.

Southeast is about on track to meet its forecasted pink salmon harvest, Piston said, but that wasn’t high to begin with — about 18 million pinks total.

There has been very little opportunity in northern Southeast, which is divided roughly at Sumner Strait near Wrangell, but southern Southeast has harvested about 9 million pinks as of Aug. 12.

The low abundance of hatchery chums wouldn’t change ADFG managers’ fishing strategies for the commercial fleet, Piston said; as long as the wild stocks are meeting their goals, they’ll continue to fish as normal.

“We wouldn’t not let our fishermen fish on wild stocks because there aren’t enough hatchery fish,” he said.

Though it’s struggling for pinks so far, Prince William Sound is doing just fine for chum salmon — about 82 percent greater than last year’s catch, and above the preseason forecast of about 2.8 million.

As of Aug. 13, just shy of 5 million chums had been harvested in Prince William Sound, according to ADFG. Russell said the hatcheries were expecting a good harvest this year based on past returns, and the same pattern played out with chums as with pinks — many fish were caught milling around in the sound.

As of Aug. 12, fishermen across the state had harvested just more than 120.7 million salmon.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
08/14/2019 - 9:01am

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