Commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska’s Bristol Bay are wrapping up another banner season while around the Gulf of Alaska harvests increasingly look on target to register as the worst in more than three decades.
Not since 1988 has an Alaska salmon harvest failed to pass the 100 million fish mark, but it is threatening to come up short of that bar this year.
Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang on Tuesday refused to make a call on whether the catch will be that bad. He admitted, however, that it could be close.
“It all depends on what happens with the pinks,” he said. “Chums are under-performing everywhere in the state.”
So, too, all of the sockeye salmon runs with the exception of those in that big Bay in far southwest Alaska facing toward Russia on the opposite side of the Bering Sea.
The world-famous Copper River sockeye fishery opened for only seven, 12-hour fishing periods all summer, and the catch is below 100,000 fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). The Cook Inlet sockeye fishery has been so bad half the driftnet fleet has just stopped fishing, and the catch is under 600,000.
Together those fisheries produced a harvest that about 2 percent of the Bay’s catch of about 40 million sockeye. The tasty, red-fleshed sockeye are the state’s big money fish.
Lower-quality pinks and chums, however, usually account for the majority of the catch. And those fish combined with sockeyes account for 90 percent or more of commercial landings every season.
Small fisheries for coho (silver) and Chinook (king) salmon are economically important to some fishermen but are a tiny part of the total harvest.
Way off pace
As of Monday, the statewide catch stood at 74 million with the bulk of those fish Bay sockeyes plus 22 million pinks from Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.
For comparison sake, the overall catch last year on the same date was pushing 129 million on the way to another year with a harvest of over 200 million salmon. It was only the eighth time in state history the harvest had passed the 200 million mark, but the fourth time in six highly productive years in the 2010s.
After the season, many were wondering how long the run of monster returns could continue. Twenty-twenty could be providing the answer.
Gulf runs of sockeyes, chums, cohos and kings have been “under performing,” as Lang put it, and pink harvests that should now be peaking aren’t.
The five-year, average pink harvest for the week ending Aug. 2 is more than 17 million fish, according to ADF&G data. It was a tiny fraction of that last week. Still, the five-year average does tend to misrepresent the nature of pinks in Alaska where the odd-year fish and the even-year fish are distinctly different animals, with odd-year returns dominant.
There has long been speculation among fisheries biologists that bountiful odd-year pinks so heavily graze the Pacific that a lack of food suppresses the population of even-year fish, but the theory has never been proven.
Discussions have, however, increased in recent years as sockeye runs have begun to mimic the odd-even pattern of pinks. The sockeye return to Cook Inlet in 2018 was a disaster.
Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, pinks invariably come back to Alaska in lesser numbers in even years. In 2018, the harvest for the last week in July saw about 8.3 million pulled from nets and hauled to processors. That was almost exactly half the five-year average, which is about the norm for an even year.
This year’s catch for the same week is down to 1.1 million. The pre-season forecast called for a 2020 catch of 61 million pinks. The harvest is only about a third of that.
“Landings for the species will need to improve significantly to meet
the ADF&G harvest projection,” Garrett Evridge, an economist for The McDowell Group, observed in his weekly report for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Statewide, he noted chum harvests down 67 percent from last year and sockeye harvests down 18 percent thanks to the collapse of the Copper River and the weak return to Cook Inlet.
Evridge puts the pink run on par with 2018 which came in at about 41 million. That’s 20 million shy of the 2020 forecast for that species. The low, 2018 catch of pinks helped make that year the second-worst of the 2010s for commercial fishermen.
When it was over, the all-species salmon catch was but 114.5 million salmon. Things are only looking worse this year with not only harvests numbers down but prices being paid for salmon only half to two-thirds of 2019.
“Those poor fishermen,” Evridge said Tuesday. “It’s tough.”
Pinks are yet to arrive in any number in the Panhandle, Lang said, “and the longer it takes, the more it looks like they’re weak, not late.” He was more optimistic pinks would show in the Sound to boost harvests there, but that is largely contingent on the bulk of the return coming a little later in August as it did last year.
If the run follows the pattern of 2018, it has already peaked.
As always, sorting out the reasons for weak runs is difficult. The Gulf-wide nature of this year’s phenomenon points to issues at sea, but there are outliers.
The Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula saw a larger than projected return of sockeye this year while only miles away the Kenai River, where a low return was already expected, saw a low below the low.
The Kenai did, however, appear to be getting a big return of pinks, which aren’t particularly favored by Inlet fishermen of any stripe, and the little Deshka River, a tributary to the Susitna River to the north of Anchorage, was getting swarmed with the fish most Alaskans call humpies.
Almost 150,000 of them have gone upstream. The Deshka, which flips the odd-even trend for pinks on its head, hasn’t seen pink returns of that size since the early 2000s.
Offshore, pinks continue to rule the ocean, said Greg Ruggerone, a research biologist in Seattle. Along with Canadian researcher James Irvine, he has been tracking salmon numbers in the Pacific. The two are credited with writing the definitive paper on salmon abundance in 2018.
It calculated there are now more salmon in the Pacific than ever, but the population is heavily weighted toward pinks. They and other biologists have suggested the general decline in Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Northwest sockeye, king and coho numbers might be related to those species struggling to compete with pinks for food – think cattle versus sheep on the range in the old West.
The trend to humpies does not appear to be abating, Ruggerone said this week.
“Overall pink abundance was phenomenal in 2018…,” he messaged, “and 2019 was exceptional too. Nothing compares to the back-to-back large runs in ’18 and ’19.”
Commercial salmon seiners in Alaska – of whom there are few – have been big beneficiaries, but the Russians have been the biggest winners. Russian rivers have been flooded with pinks.
Ruggerone is among those who suspect the large numbers of pinks are influencing the size of other salmon populations in the huge and complicated ecosystem that is the North Pacific.
“On the high seas, pink salmon and other salmon species often eat similar prey, including small fishes and squid, leading to reduced growth and survival when pink abundance is high,” he messaged. “Salmon migrate thousands of kilometers, so populations from distant regions overlap and compete for prey.
“In recent decades, pink salmon have represented nearly 70 percent of all salmon returning to North America and Asia, and their overall abundance continues to reach new highs.”
His preliminary estimate for the North Pacific-wide return of pinks in 2018 now stands at 700 million fish, the largest since detailed records began being kept in 1925. The 2019 return appears to have been only slightly smaller and the fourth largest on record.
He noted other researchers have now found evidence that “implicates pink salmon and early marine oceanographic conditions in the long-term decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon” in the Pacific Northwest, and there are indications that the Bristol Bay sockeye boom might have been even bigger if not for competition with pinks.
Questions are also starting to be raised about competition between a booming population of Bering Sea pinks and a declining population of kings in the Yukon River, which drains into the Bering Sea.
But definitively sorting any of this out is difficult, and to Alaska fishermen what really matters is simple: fish in the net. For that, it’s looking to a be lean year for many.