Commercial salmon seiners in Alaska’s Prince William Sound looked to have hit the jackpot on Thursday with a six-hour fishery opening netting an estimated 2.1 million pink salmon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
State biologists are now trying to sort out whether it is a harbinger of things to come or a one-shot deal in a season when the pinks appear to be arriving late and possibly, or possibly not, in low numbers.
Returns have lagged at the hatcheries that produce the bulk of the Sound run, and wild fish and hatchery strays have entered streams and rivers in lower than desired numbers largely due to a lack of rain bordering on a drought for the normally went Gulf coast.
Even with Thursday’s bonanza, the harvest is more than 20 million fish below the five-year average for the odd years from 2009 to 2017. Odd-year pinks and even-year pinks are distinctly different fishes, and odd years are historically the strong years for most of Alaska.
Twenty-seventeen saw a monster year for pinks with 141.6 million of the fish – 63 percent of the statewide harvest of salmon – helping drive the year’s catch to 224.6 million salmon. It was the third-largest catch in state history, and another big year was expected for 2019, especially in the Sound.
A harvest of 58 million pinks was forecast for the area east of Anchorage with more than 73 percent of the catch – about 42 million fish – to come from hatcheries run by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association (PSWAC), a fishermen’s organization, or the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA), a private, nonprofit company.
The harvest to date is 16.3 million when something on the order of 37 million was expected, and it appears to be weighted toward wild fish. The biggest catch Thursday came in the Sound’s Eastern district where the state reported 77 percent of the harvest was wild fish.
“PWSAC began its cost recovery sales program on July 30 and has collected approximately 61 percent of the assigned pink salmon revenue goal through
August 10,” state fishery managers reported in their Saturday announcement to fishermen. ”
It offered little hint of what is ahead, observing only that “the next broad area fishing opportunity is dependent on cost[recovery progress, PWSAC recommendations, and wild stock indices.”
Seiners are waiting anxiously for today’s 4 p.m. announcement.
Statewide, what kind of year it’s been for Alaska salmon depends to some degree on what it is you are fishing for and how.
Commercial setnetters in Cook Inlet’s Upper Subdistrict lost their regular fishing period on Thursday and may be done for the year because of a faltering run of king salmon to the fabled Kenai River.
“As of August 6…Kenai River late-run large king salmon passage was estimated to be 10,198 fish and projected a final escapement of less than 13,500 fish. Based on this escapement projection, which is below the minimum sustainable escapement
goal (SEG) and the set gillnet fishery must be closed, state fishery managers announced. But “escapement will continue to be monitored on a daily basis and if escapement projections estimate the SEG will be achieved, the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet fishery may be reopened.”
It was not looking likely that would happen. Even with the fishery closed, only 91 kings passed the river’s sonar counter on Friday, down from the 128 the day before.
Commercial fishermen had earlier in the mouth sued the state, arguing they were being robbed of millions of dollars by a decision to give the minimum escapement goal for kings preference over the upper escapement goal for Kenai sockeyes.
The bulk of the commercial catch is sockeye salmon, but their by-catch includes a significant number of kings.
Letting so many sockeyes escape up the Kenai in order to save a few kings, the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund (CIFF) argued, would cause commercial fishermen to lose revenue from the fish they couldn’t catch this year and cause an “over-escapement” of sockeye that would reduce the size of future runs and cost them even more money in the years to come.
Upstream on the Kenai, king salmon fishing guides suffered in silence. Weak king runs in recent years have put many out of business and forced others to join the mobs in pursuit of sockeye or coho.
What was bad for commercial fishermen and king anglers was, however, great for Andy Average Angler. A Kenai plugged with sockeye or “red” salmon made for great fishing on the state’s popular salmon stream, and to try to tamp down the monster of “over-escapement” the state upped the daily bag limit to six of the fish.
With more than 1.6 million sockeye counted into the Kenai as of Friday, the fishing was easy. Anglers are as a result expected to catch 300,000 to 400,000, but the escapement (the number of spawning fish after the sport catch) was still likely to go over the maximum goal of 1.2 million.
Whatever happens, anglers living in the Anchorage Metro area – home to more than half the state’s s population – are likely to end up viewing this as a near-perfect season save for still struggling runs of kings throughout the Cook Inlet drainage.
Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, on the other hand, will remember it as another not so good year, although better than the disaster of 2018.
No one has a good answer for why the kings have faded almost everywhere, why Cook Inlet which once produced sockeye runs more than twice the size of those seen now is struggling, or what is going on with pink salmon in the Sound.
Statewide, Fish and Game was predicting another big year for 2019 with a forecast for a total harvest of 213.2 million salmon, but that is now looking a little overly optimistic.
Despite the strong showing in Bristol Bay, the catch to date is lagging about 10 million fish behind the five-year average for the date, which includes those weak even years for pink salmon.
Thanks to the bounty in the Bay, the statewide sockeye harvest of about 54 million has passed the forecast harvest of 41.7 million, but both pink and chum harvests are lagging. The pink forecast was for a harvest of 138 million; the harvest to date – at what is normally the peak of the pink catch – is 54 million.
The chum harvest of 11 million is well below the forecast of 29 million and about 3 million behind the five-year average catch for this date. The five-year average is only 17.6 million.
Nature giveth, and she taketh away.