Opposite forecasts for SE pinks, Bristol Bay reds; Cook Inlet busts

  • Dipnetters work a bank near the mouth of the Kenai River near a commerical drift net boat as both target sockeye salmon. The Cook Inlet commercial harvest was a bust for a second year in a row as run timing and low numbers of Kenai River king salmon combined to keep fishermen on shore for large chunks of the season. (Photo/File/AP)

Biologists are forecasting another weak pink salmon year for Southeast and another strong sockeye salmon run for Bristol Bay coming in the 2020 season.

The forecasts for Southeast Alaska and for Bristol Bay, released in late November, continue the trends of the past few years in both areas. In Southeast, biologists are forecasting about 12 million fish to be harvested, with a range of 7 million to 19 million fish.

That’s in the second-lowest forecast percentile, or just more than 20 percent of the fishery’s historic volume. A harvest of 12 million would be about a third of the region’s recent 10-year average harvest, according to the forecast.

The forecast number, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Lab in Juneau in collaboration with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Southeast regional hatcheries, is calculated from surveys of juvenile pink salmon in June and July in northern Southeast Alaska waters.

The survey data from 2019 turned up the third-lowest index in the last 23 years, according to the forecast.

“The low juvenile abundance index in 2019 was not unexpected. Pink salmon escapements in the parent year (2018) were very poor throughout northern Southeast Alaska inside waters and the escapement goal was not met in that subregion, which may have resulted in below optimal egg deposition,” the forecast states.

“Escapement and harvest of pink salmon in the Northern Southeast Inside subregion have been very poor since 2012 and the 2020 forecast indicates this pattern is likely to continue.”

Though escapement goals were met in the Southern Southeast and the Northern Southeast Outside regions in 2018, harvests were poor there as well. The reason for the low abundance in the 2019 survey isn’t clear, but it could be due to poor freshwater survival conditions or poorer marine conditions, leading to higher mortality, the forecast states.

Drought conditions also lasted from 2018 into spring 2019 in Southeast. The juveniles caught in the survey were all large and healthy-looking, the forecast states, but so were the juveniles from 2014-16, when the returns were also less than average.

The summer’s unusually warm and dry conditions may also have an effect, as well as the anomalously high sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska.

“The impact of warm sea surface temperatures on the survival of pink salmon that went to sea in 2019 is unknown and adds uncertainty,” the forecast states.

Southeast Alaska has had a series of poor pink salmon harvests for the past few years. In 2019, fishermen landed an estimate 21.1 million pink salmon for a total ex-vessel value of $23.7 million, according to a preliminary season summary from Fish and Game.

The fish weighed an average of 3.68 pounds. Pink salmon are Southeast’s major volume fishery, but the fish are worth significantly less than other salmon fisheries. Chum, which are significantly larger, came in at an average weight of 7.99 pounds in Southeast.

A total of 8.4 million of them landed came to about $37.5 million in ex-vessel value, according to ADFG. The total salmon ex-vessel value of $101 million in 2019 in Southeast was about $32 million less than the total 2018 value, with the shortfall mostly in chums.

Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay, on the other hand, is predicted to see another better than-average run. The forecast of 48.95 million sockeye is about 6 percent better than the recent 10-year average.

If the prediction comes true, it would be yet another big year for Bristol Bay, which has broken harvest and value records for sockeye two years running.

The 2018 season brought an estimated 62.5 million sockeye home to the rivers of Bristol Bay; the 2019 season brought more than 50 million.

A run of 48.95 million sockeye would allow for a harvest of 36.9 million fish, with 34.56 million in the bay and 2.35 million in the South Peninsula fisheries, according to the forecast. As always, biologists warn caution when reading forecasts, as they may not be accurate, particularly for individual rivers.

“Forecasting future salmon returns is inherently difficult and uncertain,” the forecast states. “We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast which have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole.”

Another bust year for Cook Inlet

Upper Cook Inlet’s salmon fishermen had another disappointing season, with only 2.1 million salmon landed. That’s about 37 percent less than the recent 10-year average. That brought in a total of about $18 million in ex-vessel value, which is about 40 percent less than the recent 10-year average in the fishery, according to ADFG season summary released Nov. 25.

It’s better than the 2018 season, when fishermen in the area only landed about 1.3 million salmon total, about 815,000 of which were sockeye. The sockeye showed up erratically late in 2018, throwing management procedures for a loop and frustrating fishermen.

This year, the fish were an estimated two days late, but both the Kasilof River and Kenai River sockeye salmon escapement goals were exceeded in part because of restrictions on commercial fishermen due to weak Kenai River late-run king salmon numbers.

The sockeye salmon harvest of about 1.7 million was the second-smallest in the last decade, according to the season summary.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/26/2019 - 2:10pm

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