Commercial salmon seiners in Alaska’s Prince William Sound were back at it Saturday with hopes that Thursday’s bonanza of nearly 3 million pink salmon marked the start of a predicted monster run and not the end.
Despite Thursday’s big day, the season-long total is almost 20 million fish behind the five-year average catch for odd-year humpies – odd-numbered years being the years when the fish historically storm the Sound.
The biggest haul of the season, according to the fisheries announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, brought the total catch to an “estimated at 25.4 million CPF (common property fish) and 3.2 million cost-recovery fish for a total of 28.6 million fish. The five-year, odd-year average (2009–2017) cumulative PWS pink salmon harvest (cost recovery and CPF fish) through August 15 is 47.5 million fish.”
“Cost-recovery” fish are those caught by the Sound’s private, nonprofit hatcheries to cover the costs of the salmon ranches credited with building the Sound fishery from a minor affair in Alaska to a big player. Alaska’s version of open-range fish farming grew Sound harvests from an average harvest of but 3 million per year from 1951 to 1979 to a present-time average of about 45 million per year.
The catch hit a record high of 92.6 million in 2013, and while no one was expecting that this year seiners were hoping for something on the high-end of a forecast range of 28.3 million to a staggering 100 million.
The more than 70-million-salmon difference in the forecast range reflects the difficulty of predicting returns of salmon comprised of a single age-class of fish spending but 18 months at sea. Other salmon species spend years at sea and returns are comprised of 1-ocean, 2-ocean, 3-ocean and sometimes even older fish. Scientists can use the survival of the earliest returning fish to get a better handle on the likelihood for the later returning salmon.
Forecasting returns of pink salmon – the smallest and shortest-lived of the species – is much more a crapshoot, and the returns so far this year look to be trending nearer the lower end of the forecast range with hatchery fish fairing worse than wild fish.
The preseason forecast predicted wild fish would make up about 35 percent of the harvest. To date, ADF&G sampling show about 42 percent of the fish that have been caught are wild, and wild fish were specifically being targeted Saturday because of an apparent lack of hatchery returns.
The commercial fishermen run Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation specifically asked the state to keep fishing areas around its hatcheries closed.
“PWSAC began its cost recovery sales program on…July 30 and has collected approximately 97 percent of the assigned pink salmon revenue goal through…Aug. 15,” the fishery announcement said. “PWSAC currently estimates there are approximately 190,000–215,000 pink salmon within the Armin F. Koernig Special Harvest Area and needs approximately 350,000 pink salmon for broodstock; 50,000–80,000 pink salmon within the Cannery Creek Special Harvest Area and needs approximately 360,000 pink salmon for broodstock; 140,000–160,000 pink salmon within the Wally Noerenberg Special Harvest Area and needs approximately 300,000 pink salmon for broodstock.”
Given the lack of fish there, it is looking increasingly improbable the season’s harvest will get close to that pre-season prediction of 65 million.
Bert Lewis, the regional supervisor for commercial fisheries at ADF&G, has said the hatchery of the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) looks to have seen a return of only about half of its forecast 20.1 million humpies. That would put it at the bottom of its forecast range of 10 million to 30 million.
No one knows why.
Were the PSWAC hatcheries to suffer a similar shortfall, it could end up being another tough year for the 200 to 220 active seiners dependent on earnings in odd-numbered years to help even out the even-numbered years with their smaller pink returns.
Particularly in recent years, records from the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission show a big swing in earning between even an odd years with an average of nearly $500,000 per permit in 2013 falling to but $70,000 in 2016.
On top of that, more than 6 million fish were committed to hatchery cost recovery, leaving commercial seiners only 14 million. Earnings fell accordingly.
They were hoping for a big payday this year, but the chances of that look to be fading as not only the Sound harvest but the statewide harvest lags behind predictions. The pre-season forecast was for a catch of 213.2 million salmon – 137.8 million of them pinks.
The catch now stands at about 148 million with seven weeks left to go in the season. Harvests generally fall off quickly in those weeks. The five-year average harvest for the last seven weeks of is 23 million.
Pushed by another big year in Bristol Bay, the sockeye salmon harvest for the year came in more than 12 million above the forecast of 41.7 million, but the pink harvest is considerably behind the forecast of nearly 140 million pinks with a catch to date of about 80 million. The five-year average pink harvest for the last seven weeks of the season is 17 million fish, according to ADF&G.
But seldom are things average in Alaska. A few more days like Thursday in the Sound could quickly change the look of the season. And until the season ends, there is always hope for fishermen in Alaska.