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Alaska wild salmon harvest surpasses 38 million

After a strong start, with the famed run of wild Alaska sockeye salmon coming in early, the blustery weather continued, but the Bristol Bay salmon fishery has slowed down.

The big question is what happened to the 2-2s, the 4.5 million sockeye that have spent two years in the ocean and two in fresh water, who were supposed to return to the bay this summer? While the return of three ocean sockeyes has been strong and health, the 2-2s run has been half strength, said Paul Salomone, area management biologist at King Salmon for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Commercial fishing in the Egegik district of Bristol Bay has, in fact, been closed since July 6, as biologists wait for enough escapement up river, Salamone said today. The total run to Egegik had been projected at 8.5 million sockeyes, but now is at a little over 5 million fish, he said. At this point, it's doubtful they are still coming, he said.

"We got off to a fairly good start, but it all kind of fell on its face last week," said Shawn Dochtermann, a veteran Bristol Bay drift gillnet fisherman from Kodiak, referring to the week ending July 9..

While there are still plenty of boats out on the bay, a lot of harvesters in the Naknek-Kvichak district were coming in with 1,000 pound to 5,000 pound deliveries of salmon to processors, more of them about 1,000 pounds, he said.

The fish that have shown up are three-ocean fish, but a lot of the salmon that should have shown up after two years in the ocean and two in fresh water are missing, he said.

What happened to them is anyone's guess, he said.

They could be coming next year, or they could have gotten eaten by other fish, or they never really existed; nobody knows, he said.

Salomone said the biologists don't know either. "We don't have a clue," he said.

"Those are our projections based on preseason analysis. Projections are put out to give the industry what we expect, so they can gear up for the season. If the variables in the environment stay consistent, they do pretty well with the predictions," he said.

Whether the environment or other factors have played into the run this year remains a mystery.

Weather conditions, described by state fisheries biologists as dreary, have continued.

This morning the wind was blowing at 25 knots around King Salmon, Salomone said.

A day earlier, north at Naknek, it was blowing 35-40 knots and gusting to 50 knots, Dochtermann said.

Then it turned sunny, with the seagulls flying, and then came more rain, he said.

A setnetter in the Naknek district, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said fishing has also been slow in his area. Working the setnet site with two permits, he said, their best day since they started fishing on June 14 was 17,000 pounds of salmon. As of July 11, their total harvest was 57,000 pounds of fish. The same setnetters last year earned 95 cents a pound for a harvest of 60,000 pounds. In 2009, by comparison, they got 65 cents a pound for their harvest of 120,000 pounds, he said.

While wild sockeye salmon prices are holding steady on retail markets, processors have not yet announced their base price for 2011.

Anchorage retailer 10th and M Seafoods, which had been selling whole sockeye salmon for $6.95 a pound and fillets for $10.95 a pound, dropped its price on July 11 to $8.50 a pound for fillets and $5.50 for whole salmon, but said fewer fish overall should keep prices strong.

Through July 8, the total statewide salmon harvest stood at 38,203,000 fish, including 194,000 kings, 3,470,000 chums, 85,000 silvers, 7,915,000 pinks and 26,539,000 sockeye salmon. The statewide forecast calls for a total harvest of 203 million salmon of all species, which would be the fifth largest total harvest and fourth highest pink salmon harvest since 1960.

For Bristol Bay alone, the forecast was for a harvest of 28.5 million salmon, from a run estimated at 38.5 million fish.

Through July 10, Bristol Bay processors have received 19,094,781 salmon, from a total run of 25,765,558 fish, according to the daily run report produced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

On the Lower Yukon River through July 8, fishermen had harvested some 165,000 chum salmon, while in Norton Sound the chum harvest stood at 40,000 fish, and the Kuskokwim district had some 52,000 chums, 31,000 sockeye and 15,000 chinook salmon.

For the Alaska Peninsula, the salmon harvest totaled 3.2 million fish, including 2,021,000 reds, 767,000 pinks, 475,000 chums and some 5,000 kings.

At Kodiak harvesters brought in 1.1 million salmon, including 893,000 reds, 246,000 chums, 37,000 pinks, some 3,000 kings and 2,000 silvers. At Chignik, the harvest including more than 2 million reds, 83,000 pinks, 79,000 chums and 2,000 kings, for a total of some 2.2 million fish.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.

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