Salmon season is winding down and it's still a guess if the statewide catch will reach the 132 million fish forecast. Achieving that all comes down to those hard-to-predict pinks, whose catch makes up more than half of the total harvest.
"I think it's going to be close. It all depends on what happens with the pink salmon runs in the three major producing areas: Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Southeast," said Geron Bruce, assistant director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division.
This summer a catch of 70.2 million pinks was forecast, down 40 percent from last year. So far, the Kodiak pink catch has topped 15 million, with 16 million at Southeast and nearly 25 million pinks taken at Prince William Sound. That brings the total Alaska humpy harvest to more than 56 million so far.
"But all of the three areas are past their peak, it appears. So we've got maybe a couple weeks left of decent fishing if these pink salmon runs have a nice tail on them and stretch out a little bit," Bruce said.
Looking at other salmon catches, Alaska's sockeye take of 35 million will tick up slightly but still will come up short of the nearly 35 million sockeye forecast, a 4 percent decline from last year.
Likewise, Bruce said, chum salmon catches will also be down a bit.
"But it's been a good year for chums and we are definitely going to hit 16 million and might hit 17 million. So that's a good harvest," he said.
Good summer and fall chum runs appeared on the Yukon River and at Kotzebue, while the Kuskokwim chum returns were disappointing. For coho salmon, Bruce said, the catch outlook "looks kind of mediocre at best."
Overall, except for the major fishing upheavals caused by closures in major rivers to protect low chinook returns, Alaska's salmon catch is panning out pretty much like managers expected.
"We expected a down year and this is going to be one of the smallest harvests we've had in a while," Bruce said. "We've been at 30 million salmon or above that pretty consistently."
While the lower salmon catches might be good in the short term, Alaska needs to maintain a fishery that is as robust as possible to satisfy its growing numbers of customers.
Two Alaska fishing groups are using social media to build more awareness and customers for their salmon brands. Starting this summer, locator apps were introduced to help customers find where salmon from Copper River and Bristol Bay are sold or served.
"The point is to allow people across the country to find Bristol Bay sockeye and if it is not already in our locator, to tag it as well so that other people will know where they can purchase our salmon," said Bob Waldrop, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which is operated and funded by the fishermen.
The app directs users to a Facebook page where typing in an address or ZIP code will locate nearby Bristol Bay salmon sellers. Restaurants or retailers not listed can be tagged and added to the larger list. Waldrop said that's been a good selling point to get retailers on board.
"When they learn that we are driving customers to them if they will call out their locations, it's become a sort of virtuous cycle, one hand washing the other," Waldrop told KDLG in Dillingham.
Copper River fishermen were the first to use a salmon locator app this year. Their "find it/tag it" page touts "full season flavor" with kings in the spring, sockeye in summer and cohos in the fall. Along with Facebook, the group also uses Twitter to get in touch with restaurant followers to make sure they've been added to the database.
"The app has been very successful," said Jessyka Dart-McLean, a spokesperson for the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.
"We had quite a rush at the beginning of the season of markets and restaurants who wanted to get involved."
Salmon lovers today really want to know the source of their fish, said BBRSDA's Bob Waldrop.
"It means a lot to consumers now to know where their food comes from. When it's Alaska, that's great -- when it's a particular part of Alaska, that's even better. What we are doing is taking them to the place where their product is being caught and harvested."
NanoICE is coming to Alaska. The ice-making technology that was invented in Iceland more than a decade ago is newly available in the United States. The product is made up of tiny ice "fractions" that immerse fish completely and, unlike flake ice, eliminate air pockets that allow bacteria to grow. The ice quickly brings the core temp of the fish down to 31 degrees and holds it there for as long as needed.
Instead of ice being pumped into a fish hold or container, NanoICE can be pumped into the fish storage area; likewise, in a processing plant, it can be pumped from a central ice house to wherever it's needed instead of flake ice being scurried to and fro with forklifts. At-sea processors also could dip fish in the ice solution to reduce freezing time aboard the vessels.
"It's a holistic approach to the whole cold chain in terms of seafood quality," said Dan Strickland, a longtime Alaska fishermen who is now working with the NanoICE company. "It begins at the harvest to the tender through to the processors to cold storage and shipping, all the way to retail displays."
NanoICE will make its first Alaska appearance at the Kodiak Marine Science and Research center where more testing will occur along with workshops for local processors. Processors at Bristol Bay have expressed interest in the new technology; Strickland said it could put an end to trip limits.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.