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Salmon fog

age at length

Go figure, Alaska Department of Fish and Game data show Southeast coho got big during The Blob years/Salmon Ocean Ecology Meeting graphic

UPDATE: The entire Susitna River drainage has now been closed to king salmon fishing.

Speed-dating the news for Alaska salmon 2018 – where down is up and up is down. Here we go:

So few king salmon showed up at the famous Kenai River that it closed to fishing for early-run fish. Fishery scientists say to blame the ocean. 

So many sockeye salmon arrived upstream at the Kenai’s Russian River river tributary that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game expanded the fishery. But a 20-year flood greeted that announcement to turn the normally clear water river brown and wash out the goods news. Conditions are now improving.

So few kings – the biggest of the Pacific salmon – returned to streams on the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula that all king salmon streams are closed, and the fabled Anchor River near Homer is on pace to post its worst-ever return of kings in modern times. The fish counters there posted goose-eggs for the weekend, a first for modern times during a period that should mark a strong part of the run.

 A record number of sockeye salmon showed up at Bear Creek, a tributary to the Resurrection River at Resurrection Bay at Seward,  but the fish were smaller than the average size Kenai River pinks caught in commercial setnets last year.

Some blame “The Blob,” a now gone pool of hot water in the Gulf of Alaska for the few fish and the small fish, but not the many fish. State fishery data indicate some salmon – notably Southeast cohos and Kenai pinks – came back  bigger than normal when “The Blob” was at its peak.

So few sockeye have returned to the Copper River near the Canadian border that commercial Cordova fishermen lost a potential fortune. The season opened with fishermen getting $9.50 per pound – an unheard of price for sockeye – but fishing lasted only three days in May before Fish and Game figured out the returning sockeye were not only smallish in size but few in number and ended the season. The catch of 26,000 – a fraction of the anticipated 1.7 million harvest – torched dreams of tens of millions of dollars.

An expected 30 million pink salmon are now starting their return to the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation and Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) hatcheries in the Sound west and north of the fishing community of Cordova.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries is to meet July 17 to consider a request from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and others to veto a VFDA plan to further increase its production of pinks.  Seattle fisheries scientist Greg Ruggerone and a gaggle of scientific colleagues have hypothesized that the billions of hatchery salmon now being pumped into the North Pacific Ocean have altered the ecosystem to the disadvantage of sockeye, coho and especially kings (or Chinook).

So few kings returned to the Matanuska-Susitna valley that the few sport fisheries left open there were limited to catch-and-release only, and then shutdown on Wednesday along with a subsistence fishery on the Yentna River. The king return to the popular Deshka River is headed toward the lowest on record by an order of magnitude.

The state’s largest newspaper over the weekend lamented the personal-use dipnet closure on the Copper where Alaskans catch those salmon for which “Lower 48 residents often pay $45 per pound for commercially caught Copper River sockeyes.”  That “often pay” price is actually for Copper kings, which annually return to the river in the low tens of thousands,  and not for the sockeye, which normally return by the hundreds of thousands, but the newspaper was well-intentioned in its editorial observation that “Alaskans — most of us, at least — can’t afford to pay $45 per pound for salmon.”

A hoped for upside to the Copper River shut down (if there is an upside) has yet to materialize in the the Gulkana River, a Copper tributary north of Glennallen. The Gulkana was once famous for its rod-and-reel king salmon fishery. Harvests topped 4,000 per year in the 1990s, but the entire annual return is now smaller than that.

A big bump-up in kings was anticipated due to the non-fishing downstream. It has not as of yet materialized, but the river was flooding and nothing could be seen from the fish-counting tower. Water started dropping over the weekend. Six fish were counted Monday. It’s the total for the year. But it’s still early.

Bristol Bay, the state’s biggest commercial sockeye fishery, has started off slow, but it’s still early.

PWSAC’s Main Bay Hatchery in Prince William Sound appears to be getting a big return of sockeye salmon – almost 150,000 have been caught in the commercial fishery to date – but like the fish in Resurrection Bay they are small. The average weight is 4.2 pounds. 

So few kings are returning to the Yukon River that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is suggesting that restrictions on subsistence fishing many be necessary in Central Alaska.

The forecast total harvest for Alaska salmon for the year is 147.3 million salmon, according to the state. Close to 50 percent are expected to be pinks.

The 2017 harvest of Alaska salmon totalled 225.7 million fish, about 63 percent of them pinks.

The lowest value Alaska salmon, pinks in most areas return in bigger numbers in odd years than in even years. The belief is that even-year runs are smaller than odd-year runs because the odd-year fish overgraze the Pacific Ocean pastures, leaving less food for the even-year fish.

Voracious feeders, pinks spend only 18 months in the ocean in which time they grow from fry of less than a gram (0.04 ounce) to adult fish of three and a half to five pounds. 

The pinks in the Cook Inlet commercial setnet catch last year averaged five pounds. Their fast growth would qualify them as nature’s versions of man’s genetically modified “Frankenfish.”

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18 replies »

  1. The hubris of humans has shown time and time again that we don’t know what we think we know. We’ve been fishing Alaskan waters in commercial numbers for a little over a hundred years, we’ve only really been fishing them in the current, or close to the current, levels for maybe 40 to 50 years. And we’ve only been studying these systems with and real scientific purpose for 30 to 40 years, some case much less. There are cycles in nature that we cannot control, that isn’t to say we should throw our hands up in the air and admit defeat, just that we do not understand everything. We discover new species by the hundreds, if not thousands, every year. We’ve explored less than 90% of the oceans. There are cycles we don’t know about and don’t understand.

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  2. Mavo, that might explain PWS low abundance this season but might not UCI. Far far fewer hatchery releases in UCI.
    My opinion based on some experience, is that there is overharvest. That generally explains when species go away. Where the overharvest occurs is a good question, however. Pollock trawl by catch? Kodiak seine fishery? UCIDA or ESSN gill net fisheries? Commercial under reporting or drop out mortality? In river sports fisheries? Who knows. The easy answer for the Dept is to blame something it has no control of, rather than consider that they may have made some mistakes. And the BOF may also be complicit. The make up of the Board seems to often favor the commercial sector which has had significant impact on Chinook.

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  3. “The entire Susitna River drainage has now been closed to king salmon fishing”? interestingly enough ADF&G did not close the Tyonek subsistence fishery. What’s up with that? Different group of federally qualified subsistence users?

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    • Of course subsistence has a priority. And that is the easy answer. But with the dramatic down turn one would logically expect that all fisheries that target Kings in the Northern District would be closed. Could it be that Walker wants / needs the rural vote? Translation: “native” vote.

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  4. What about the factory trawlers that have been growing for the last 20 years??!!! And their by catch that they lie about!!??

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    • there’s no evidence they could catch enough to cause the problems we’re seeing now with Chinook, and there’s no scenario under which they account for so many undersize sockeye. the most interesting thing about the latter is how that tracks back 40 years now.

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  5. I don’t buy the blob theory. BB salmon would also be MIA, but they aren’t. Hatcheries overloading the North Pacific with pinks is the most likely culprit.

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  6. There is no doubt in my mind that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game can do nothing to alleviate negative affects of the “blob” on Pacific salmon.
    But the Commissioner of Fish&Game could hold off on expanding salmon ranching in the Pacific with Alaska hatchery salmon.

    Or just continue to help the Russians and Japanese fill the range with hatchery salmon during hard times for some runs.

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      • a mystery which, if solved, might tell us much.

        i can guess at some possibilities: bigger, stronger smolt grown in-river for some reason, a shifted smolt out-migrant time that increases survival odds in the nearshore environment, fewer predators of smolt inriver or immediately offshore, a different rearing area that minimizes competition with all the other little salmon out in the bering sea, and luck.

        never underestimate luck.

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      • One reason might be that Bristol Bay does not have the huge levels of adult and juvenile hatchery salmon competing with wild salmon smolts when they first hit the salt water.

        The Aleutian chain might be protecting outgoing smolts in Bristol Bay from the millions of hatchery pinks and chums in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. There is a lot of competition from hatchery smolts in these areas for wild stocks that Bristol Bay just doesn’t have.

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