Along the southern edge of the Bering Sea, fishermen in Alaska’s Bristol Bay are enjoying yet another banner year, but to the east there are hints of the disaster of 2018.
By the seventh opening, the fishing was so obviously bad that only about 20 percent of the fleet based in the port of Cordova at the southern edge of Prince William Sound even bothered to put out nets.
Upriver there were enough fish to meet the needs of spawning – plus fisheries for subsistence, personal-use dipnetters and anglers – but the run overall could only be described as weak and under forecast.
To the north of the Sound, a similar situation is now developing in Cook Inlet, a ground zero for Alaska fish wars between salmon harvesters of different sorts even when they are lots of fish.
The Upper Cook Inlet commercial harvest of sockeye – the prize fish in the Inlet – was, as of today, ess than 600,000 fish, about a third of the preseason forecast of a harvest of 1.7 million. The central district catch of 563,000 of those fish is less than 45 percent of the five-year average for the date.
The hope and expectation are that the catch will grow significantly in the days ahead, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Friday put out an “advisory announcement” downsizing the expected return of sockeye to the Kenai River from 2.2 million to 1.9 million.
The Kenai is the elephant in the Inlet’s waters, and the revised forecast is based on an optimistic projection that the fish “will likely be two to five days late in run timing.”
Fishery managers concede that the return could fall well short of the latest best-estimate if that is not the case.
Cross your fingers
Bert Lewis, the regional supervisor for commercial fisheries, said Friday it is still too early to be positive of anything. He was unwilling to take a guess at how far under the preseason forecast the return might fall.
“We’re going to give it a few more days yet,” he said while sounding slightly less positive than the official announcement.
“We’ve seen the Copper was largely a run failure,” he admitted.
Along with the lagging commercial catch, the entry of sockeye into the Keni has been low. The escapement as of Friday was near 433,000 at a time when historically about 55 percent of the return would be in the river.
The in-river goal is 1 million to 1.2 million sockeye.
Ray Beamesderfer, an independent fisheries consultant who has among his clients the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KSRA), expected the goal to be easily met – mainly because the commercial set gillnet fisheries nearest the mouth of the Kenia have been closed by the state to protect a dismal return of late-run Kenai Chinook, the big “king” salmon for which Alaska is famous.
The return of the early-run kings to the Kenai was a disaster. The late-run looks better in terms of the actual number of fish, but it is lagging way behind its escapement goal.
As of Friday, only 5,163 “big fish” had passed the sonar counter on the Kenai. The in-river goal is 15,000 to 30,000. Fish and Game badly missed the minimum last year and is hoping to avoid a replay this year.
If the run is on time, the latest projects put the return at about 11,900 – near identical to the disaster of ’18. The numbers improve if the run is late, which is everyone’s great hope.
If it is a day late, the projection jumps by 800 fish to 12,700 total, and if it is three-days late, the projection rises to within a few-hundred fish of the minimum goal.
As Lewis observed of Kenai sockeye, the numbers are low but so close to the edge between bad and simply not-so-good that it is impossible to make a firm prediction on outcomes.
Still, it is close enough to the disaster line that the state has closed the Kenai to all angling, even catch-and-release fishing, for kings, shut down the setnet fisheries for miles north and south of the mouth of the Kenai, and pushed the commercial drift gillnet fleet a mile to a mile and a half offshore.
When the drifters are moved away from shore into deeper water, nearly all the Inlet kings swim under their nets and the fleet’s by-catch drops to a handful of fish. They reported a catch of only seven during the last opening of the drift fishery on Thursday.
The sockeye harvest was just shy of 20,000 and worked out to an average of fewer than 83 fish per boat. With the fish reported to be running small at an average weight of less than 5 pounds and prices down a reported 25 percent from the $1.85 per pound of last year, it was not a great payday.
Commercial fishermen on average grossed about the same for their sockeye as the $600 per week those left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic have been collecting from the government. By the time expenses were covered, they probably netted half of that.
They did get a bonus in the catch of 33,000 pink salmon, but with those fish weighing only about 3 pounds each and going for about 25 cents per pound, the entire catch would be worth only about $25,000 or around $100 per boat on average.
Few are likely to be making it through the winter on their Inlet earnings for the summer.
The only positive news is that most Inlet drifters are hobbyists who have other jobs – or did before the pandemic – that support them. They fish the Inlet for extra income and the fun of it, even if the work of shaking a lot of low-value pinks from a gillnet might not sound like fun to most people.
Why sockeye and Chinook returns are weak is a big unknown.
All sorts of possibilities have been suggested from competition with pink salmon now at record numbers in the North Pacific to over-escapement of sockeye into the Kenai, to predation by marine mammals and other predators along with the Blob, global warming, interceptions in fisheries off Kodiak Island, and more.
It’s a complicated problem, but what is obvious is that Cook Inlet – unlike Bristol Bay – is not producing sockeye salmon the way it once did.