Concern is edging toward panic for commercial salmon seiners in Alaska’s Prince William Sound where an expected big return of pink salmon has gone missing.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries supervisor for the region said Monday that the non-profit Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) is now expecting its hatchery to get only half its forecast return of 20.1 million pinks.
Things aren’t looking much better for the commercial-fishermen run hatcheries of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC). PWSAC has been fishing since Tuesday to catch pinks in a “cost recovery” fishery that pays for hatchery expenses, but state fishery managers report it still has less than 20 percent of the desired catch.
Overall, the Sound-wide catch was less than half of what it was expected to be by Monday.
“The cumulative PWS pink salmon harvest through August 4 is estimated at 12 million common-property fish (CPF) and 1.6 million cost recovery fish or a total of 13.6 million fish,” Fish and Game posted Monday in its latest announcement to seiners. “The 5-year, odd-year average (2009–2017) cumulative PWS pink salmon harvest (cost recovery and CPF fish) through August 4 is 31.2 million fish.”
Seiners are at the moment allowed to fish in only a small area of the eastern Sound. Lewis said runs of wild fish to streams look to be better than the returns to hatcheries, but the fish have stalled offshore, apparently due to low stream flows sparked by an unusually warm and dry July in the area just east of Anchorage.
He expected a surge of fish to their spawning grounds with the first good rain, but how big that surge remains to be seen. Fishermen are on pins and needles. As one longtime Sound fishermen put it Monday, “next week will tell the tale.
“If fish are not here by August 12 to 15th, they ain’t coming.”
This isn’ the way the 2019 season was supposed to go down. Coming off a weak, odd-year harvest of 24 million pinks, seiners were expecting an odd-year bonanza.
“In the wake of a 2018 fishing season that left many scraping to get through the winter, forecasts for the upcoming commercial season bode well for a harvest of upwards of 70 million Pacific salmon in Prince William Sound,” The Cordova Times reporter Margaret Bauman wrote in April.
Odd-year pinks and even-year pinks are distinctly different fish stocks, and the odd-year fish have long been predominate in most of Alaska.
More than 90 percent of the 64.7 million salmon officially projected to be harvested in the Sound this year were expected to be pink salmon with the bulk of those swarming back to VFDA and PSWAC hatcheries.
Combined, the salmon ranchers expected a harvest of 42.4 million, or about two thirds of the entire forecast catch of pinks. Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicted a catch of 22.4 million wild fish, a significant number of them now hatchery strays.
The return should have started building toward a peak weeks ago. It hasn’t.
A Fish and Game graph that tracks the catch about says it all:
The chart shows a harvest lagging badly behind last year and dwarfed by the last odd-year harvest in 2017. There are still humpies out there, Lewis said, but how many is hard to tell.
“We can see them in our aerial surveys,” he said, but stream counts remain below goals.
With the big drop in the expected VFDA return of humpies – as Alaskans often refer to pinks because of the humpback shape males take on when preparing to spawn – Lewis said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see (PWSAC) come under forecast, too.
“The forecast may have been inflated because it included two record runs (2015 and 2017). It biases them high.”
But that doesn’t explain the return lagging behind last year’s smallish, even-year return. Not that Alaska fisheries are all that predictable to begin with.
“There’s always something performing way above or way under expectations,” Lewis said.
For most of this decade it has been way above for the 49th state, and Alaksans have grown accustomed to living off the fat of the land. The average harvest for the decade is about 181 million fish per year. It stood at 122.4 million in the 1980s and increased in every decade that followed.
The all-time stare record harvest was set in 2013. More than 80 percent of the 272 million salmon harvested that year were pinks. The harvest of 219 million pinks topped 2015 when 190.5 million pinks comprised more than 72 percent of the state’s second-highest commercial salmon harvest of 263.5.
Two years later, it was more of the same with pinks again the bulk of the third-highest harvest in state history at 223 million. But the humpies had dropped to 62 percent of the total, and only 47 million of the salmon caught by fishermen that year were hatchery fish, which Fish and Game’s Mark Stopha blamed on a big wild run when writing the Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report 2017.
“Hatchery fish contributed 21 percent of the statewide commercial salmon harvest, which is the lowest percentage of hatchery fish in the harvest since 1995, and due largely to an extraordinary wild stock harvest that was the third highest in Alaska history, ” he said.
But that didn’t shift the views of any Alaska commercial fishermen who see hatcheries as the golden goose back-stopping always unpredictable Mother Nature. Stopha duly noted the importance of pinks and the industrial-scale hatcheries in the Sound.
“Prince William Sound facilities produce the majority of hatchery pink salmon in the state,’ ‘he wrote.”The Prince William Sound purse seine fishery, which harvests primarily pink salmon, was closed in 1972 and 1974, with minimal fishing in 1973. Fishermen and processors were anxious to get hatchery production on line quickly to aid in the recovery of the fishery, and pink salmon were both a targeted species and provided the quickest turnaround from egg take to harvest. Pink salmon were, and continue to be, the most abundant species in Prince William Sound, with historic infrastructure in place for processing pink salmon.”
For the past three decades, those hatcheries have produced consistently large harvests, which is what has fishermen and biologists scratching their heads about this year’s return.
There was a tiny hint of a potential pink salmon problem earlier this year. A Russian research ship – the Professor Kaganovskiy – conducting a privately funded, first-ever survey of the Gulf of Alaska in cooperation with scientists from Canada, Russia and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported finding oddly few pinks in its samples.
With no background data against to weigh that discovery, some scientists speculated that the pinks might have been south of the search area for the research trawls. Day by day, it’s looking more like the missing humpies might have been a harbinger of things to come, but there is always the possibility – at least for another week or so – that fish are simply late in their return to Sound streams and hatcheries.
The Kaganovskiy expedition estimated only 4.2 million pinks in the Gulf this winter, an incredibly small number given the Alaska forecasts for summer harvests. Sockeye were more than twice as abundant.
The latter never outnumber pinks in the Sound, but the region has seen a healthy return of sockeye this year. More than 1 million – a quarter million over the escapement goal – have been counted in the Copper River, and the count is undoubtedly low given the fish-counting sonar was washed out by high water in July.
Commercial fishermen, meanwhile, have caught almost 2.5 million sockeye Sound wide. The forecast was for a harvest of about 2 million. This follows on a 2018 sockeye season that was a total bust.
The “why” of all this remains a big unknown. The ocean is a black box.
Young salmon disappear into it; salmon managers take a guess at expected survival at sea based on what has happened in recent year; calculate a number; and then cross their fingers.
With 90 percent or more of the fish destined to disappear into the ocean waters in the best of circumstances, even a small change in ocean survival can produce a big change in the size of the return. Though VFDA forecast 20 million, the range for the forecast was from 10 million to 30 million.
The Canadians and NOAA have been leading efforts to try to determine the controlling factors at sea in order to provide better forecasts. Richard Beamish, the dean of Canada’s Pacific salmon scientists, is trying to again organize funding for a second winter survey by the Kaganovskiy or a similar research vessel.
Canadian scientists have seen indications that the early marine survival of salmon plays a big roll in the size of eventual returns. They’ve hypothesized that the die is cast by the end of the first winter at sea.
If that proves to be the case, Beamish messaged, it would “show that it may be possible to reliably forecast returns using a survey. So stayed tuned and we will see if there is some special science here.”
Better forecasts would surely come as a relief to fishermen who sometimes find themselves caught on an emotional roller coaster of up – when big returns are promised – and down – when even average forecasts fail to materialize as happened in both Copper River and upper Cook Inlet last year.