The forecast is out for the return of sockeye salmon to Alaska’s Upper Cook Inlet (UCI), and it’s looking like a replay of recent mediocre years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s best guess is for just shy of 5 million sockeye to make their way back to the waterway that laps at the front door of Alaska’s largest city. But the number could be as small as 3.3 million or as big as 10.1 million.
To illustrate the difficulty of forecasting salmon returns, it’s worth noting the state agency almost never hits the forecast exactly but is almost always within the range.
Last summer, a return of just under 6 million was 36 percent above a forecast of 4.4 million. The 2018 return, on the other hand, was 32 percent below that year’s forecast of about 4.2 million.
Sockeye are the Inlet’s big money fish, producing most of the revenue for a commercial fishery smallish by Bristol Bay or Prince William Sound standards while also feeding the state’s largest sport fishery.
Sockeye returns have generally shrunk since the start of the new millennium, and the five-year average, total return now stands at 4.6 million.
Almost that many sockeye were once caught, on average, every commercial season in the upper Inlet. The long-term, average annual harvest from 1966 to 2009 was 4.2 million, according to Fish and Game records.
If the run comes in as forecast this year, it would allow for a commercial harvest of around 2 million sockeye, less than half the historic average. About 2 million of the fish are needed for spawning and another million or so are harvested in sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries.
A changing ocean
Some fisheries scientists have suggested sockeyes are among the losers as a boom in pink salmon – the smallest and fastest-growing of the six species of salmon – floods the North Pacific ocean. In odd-numbered years, when pinks are at their peak, the ocean now holds more salmon than at any time in history, but two out of three of the adult fish are pinks.
Pinks are thought to benefit from both warming waters and Alaska state hatcheries that run a massive, free-range salmon farming program. The hatchery program was begun by the state in the 1970s but is now largely controlled by nonprofit regional associations overseen by commercial fishing interests.
The first of such monster harvests came as a bit of a surprise to fishery managers in 1995, but such catches have become something of a norm since the year 2000. The harvest has gone above 200 million fish seven times since then with all of the big harvests coming in odd-numbered years when pinks are at their peak.
The record harvest topped 280 million in 2013. That was about double the largest harvests witnessed in Alaska from 1900 to the 1980s.
Hatcheries deserve much of the credit. Natural pink runs that peaked near an annual, decadal average of about 50 million in the late 1930s and early 1940s now have an annual, decadal average over 100 million.
Pinks can only be described as thriving, but not all species of salmon are doing as well. Production of Chinook salmon, the big kings, has fallen an average 65 percent in streams and rivers from Alaska south to Oregon, according to a peer-reviewed study in Fish and Fisheries, and sockeye numbers have generally slumped all along the eastern rim of the Gulf of Alaska.
Another weak return of late-run king salmon has already been predicted for the Kenai River, once famous for its bounty of big kings. The best guess there is for 16,004 kings over 34 inches, according to Fish and Game.
But the agency warned the “prediction interval is wide,” and “the forecast is below the 1986 – 2021 average run of approximately 41,600 fish and less than the recent five-year, 2017–2021 average total run of approximately 17,600 large fish. If realized, this run will rank the sixth lowest (32nd out of 37 years); though larger than the 2021 preliminary estimated total run of 12,665 large fish.
“If realized” is an important qualifier on the forecast.
Only 11,832 of the big fish made it to spawning grounds last year despite fishery managers slapping an economically devastating closure on commercial, set gillnet fisheries once they saw how weak the return. The setnet fishery incidentally harvests Chinook while trying to catch sockeye.
That weak run left 2021 as the third straight year managers failed to meet their goal for the minimum number of spawners in-river. Whether they meet escapement this year – escapement being the number of salmon escaping human harvest to spawn – is going to hinge on what happens in the commercial fishery.
Managers should get some help there due to the prediction for a “weak” Kenai sockeye return. The Kenai is the tail that shakes the dog of Cook Inlet commercial harvests. Attempts to harvest large numbers of sockeye returning to the Kenai drives up the by-catch of Chinook and coho (silver) salmon.
With smaller returns of sockeye, less commercial fishing time is needed and the incidental harvest of other species falls.
“The Kenai River forecast of 2.9 million sockeye salmon is 794,000 less than the 20-year
average run of 3.7 million,” according to the agency. That’s a drop of about 21 percent, but the return remains within 19,000 of the five-year average of 2.92 million.
At 2.9 million sockeye, state fishery management plans dictate managers put 1 million to 1.3 million sockeye into the Kenai. That’s enough to generally support both spawning needs and a decent in-river sport fishery, but in years like this leaves a relatively small number of Kenai fish to be divided among more than 1,300 people who hold limited-entry permits that allow them to commercial fish the UCI.
With the catch split that many ways, there isn’t much money to be made by individual fishermen even if sockeye prices hit $2 per pound. Some contend the big problem is the UCI has too many commercial fishermen.
The fishery accounts for about 10 percent of all the limited-entry permits distributed in the state, according to Fish and Game, but it last year produced less than 1 percent of the statewide salmon harvest.
Commercial fishery closures to protect kings did reduce the commercial catch, but even if the closed fisheries had remained open, allowing for the catch of about another 1 million or so Kenai sockeye, a then projected harvest of 2.7 million salmon would have boosted the UCI harvest to but 1`.2 percent of the statewide total.
The number of permits issued by commercial fishermen in the Inlet has been described as badly “over-prescribed,” but no one quite knows what to do about the situation. A permit “buy-back” program has been suggested, but who would fund it is unclear.
The permits were handed out for free to qualified commercial fishermen in the 1970s after Alaska state voters approved a constitutional amendment permitting limited entry. But the permits became the property of the fishermen awarded them, and they have been widely bought and sold ever since.
With the sockeye fishery slumping, UCI set gillnet permits are now selling for about $20,000 on average – down from a one-time high about six times that – but backers of a buy-back bill have suggested the state would need to pay about $260,000 per permit as part of a buy-back program.