Lost at sea?

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.

Fickle fish

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.

The evidence for the latter claim is weak to non-existent and largely for that reason, a Kenai judge told the CIFF to go fish or, more accurately not fish.

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.

Commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay, meanwhile, are overjoyed with a monster run of sockeye driving the second-largest catch in history following on the heels of a record set just last year. 

Some have hinted the sockeyes of Bristol Bay along with the pink salmon of Russian to the west on the opposite side of the Bering Sea have been benefiting from warmer waters.

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.











5 replies »

  1. Water temps and a PWS “drought” will potentially create a late surge & 1990s humpy dump scenario of dark fish overwhelming capacity or underwhelming quality

  2. “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
    Oliver Perry

    “Something was stripping a basic building block in the food web every other year. And just one predator fit that profile…
    Pink salmon are wildly abundant in odd-number years and less abundant in even-number years. They comprise nearly 70 percent of what’s now the largest number of salmon populating the North Pacific since last century.”

    • Yes I agree but the problems with the adfg run very deep. The adfg current displays data that supposedly proves hatchery salmon are at an all time high right along with wild salmon. The way they do this is by manipulating the way they count salmon. An example would be for the adfg to dump 900,000 hatchery sockeye salmon on top of a system with 100,000 wild sockeye salmon. You might think this gives you a 1,000,000 salmon run but then four years later you sonar count 1.5 million. You gained half a million salmon, the question being were they hatchery or wild salmon? With today’s genetic technology we can absolutely determine the origin of the extra salmon but this is where the adfg manipulates the data into saying whatever they want it to say. Multiple political and economic special interest forces then apply pressure to the adfg to make this data say whatever they desire it to say. The official adfg end results then displays that the wild sockeye are actually doing better as additional hatchery sockeye are dumped on top of them… this is not really happening but the data says it is.

      This backwards ecological impact is then officially presented by the adfg to the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the board then believes hatchery salmon either have no impact or actually help wild salmon.

      The.truth is that these hatchery salmon are in fact mixing with the wild salmon and deteriorating their wild genetics and thereby reducing their ability to survive a future virus or bacteria infestation. This is a slow ever creeping genetic corruption of the original wild genome and is happening year after year without anyone actually seeing it. The adfg could record this genetic manipulation and display what it was ten years ago and is today but they have zero reasons to spend money on the hatchery genetic manipulation of wild salmon. The same adfg has many reasons to spend millions of dollars on hatcheries and to produce data claiming hatchery salmon have no real impact on wild salmon.

      Alaska’s wild fisheries management is currently being compromised by its financial connection to commercial fisheries. Alaska’s wild fisheries management needs to completely separated from commercial fisheries because commercial fisheries promote hatcheries and hatcheries work to destroy wild salmon run. This genetic destruction is on going and invisible. If it is not possible to remove commercial fisheries from the adfg then Alaska needs to remove the adfg from its fisheries management. The adfg could be redirected into managing less sensitive things like Alaska’s bird and moose populations.

  3. Alaskan salmon spend around 2-7yrs out to seas. 2yrs ago the salmon catch was above average. Less eggs? We are at the 2yr mark. Also, this years cstch is close to the 5yr average give or take, according to your graph.
    I guess I am just not seeing the sky falling yet.

  4. There was only great dip netting and sportfishing in the Kenai river for a handful of days which is a disaster as far as salmon run preservation is concerned my friends!

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