Alaska salmon fishermen could haul in a harvest nearly double last year's catch due to a projected uptick in the number of pinks.
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game report on 2017 salmon run forecasts and harvest projections pegs the catch at 204 million fish. That compares to just over 112 million salmon taken by fishermen in 2016.
The catch last season included 53 million sockeye salmon — the fifth-largest harvest since 1970 — but only 39 million pinks, the smallest since 1977.
This year's forecast calls for an average catch of sockeye salmon at 41 million, 12 million fewer than last year. For those hard-to-predict pinks, the harvest projection of nearly 142 million is nearly 103 million more than last summer.
For the other three salmon species, managers project a catch this year of 4.7 million silver salmon, 21 percent more than last year. A chum catch of 16.7 million would be an increase of 1.2 million fish.
For king salmon, a harvest of 80,000 is projected in areas outside of Southeast Alaska, where catches are regulated by treaty with Canada.
The total dockside value of the 2016 salmon fishery barely topped $406 million, the lowest in 14 years. The average prices paid to fishermen, however, were up across the board at 88 cents a pound for sockeye salmon; 65 cents for cohos, 48 cents for chums, 24 for cents for pinks and $4.40 a pound for king salmon.
The 2017 report includes a review of the 2016 salmon season for all Alaska fishing regions.
Hit for Alaska hatcheries
Last year's salmon slump also hit state hatcheries hard.
Typically, more than a third of Alaska's total salmon harvest and value include fish that start out as eggs from wild stocks reared in hatcheries — mostly pinks and chums — and are released as fingerlings.
The annual Alaska Fisheries Enhancement Report shows that last year only about 27 million adult salmon returned to Alaska's 28 hatcheries, located throughout Prince William Sound, the Southeast Panhandle and Kodiak. That was less than half of the forecast and the lowest since 1992.
That shortfall yielded a dismal hatchery catch of just 24 million salmon, 22 percent of the statewide salmon harvest, the lowest in 24 years. That pushed down the dockside value of the hatchery haul to $85 million, the lowest since 2005.
The poor returns of pink salmon caused the hatchery crash, which accounted for just 15 percent of the total Alaska hatchery take.
Alaska's hatcheries are operated by private nonprofit corporations, and funded primarily from the harvest of a portion of the salmon returns. The state also operates sportfish hatcheries in Anchorage and Fairbanks. About 120 schools also participate in educational programs that grow salmon eggs in incubators until they are released to the wild.
Operators forecast a return of about 67 million fish to Alaska's hatcheries this summer.
Skippers could become tax collectors if a new law is passed by Alaska lawmakers. The bill – House Bill 115 – would require that skippers collect an as-yet-undefined amount of each crew's wages and remit it to the state Department of Revenue. Currently, the IRS considers fishermen as conducting "fishing activities" and boat captains are only required to send in a 1099 tax form for crew members. "We don't want to be tax collectors," said Jerry McCune, president of United Fishermen of Alaska and a veteran Cordova skipper. "We have no idea what their taxes are. Even if I collect the money, I could be under collecting or over collecting and the Revenue department is going to make more work for themselves. It is cleaner the way it is — treating us as contractors."
McCune added that it is hard to assess the impact of the tax proposal until the Legislature finalizes the state budget.
Another bill aims to boost the state fuel tax by a nickel to 10 cents, then to 15 cents by 2019. Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, has added language to the measure that would give a 3 cent rebate. McCune said there is strong resistance to the tax increase.
"We can't absorb all these taxes as a fishing industry and still stay solvent," McCune said.
United Fishermen is the nation's largest fishing industry trade association, representing 34 member groups from small salmon boats to big crab boats and at-sea processors.
The annual ComFish Alaska trade show set for March 30 to April 1 in Kodiak will feature a historical overview of the 66 years of harvesting Bristol Bay salmon, seafood market updates, the Navy's controversial Northern Edge exercises in the Gulf of Alaska scheduled from May 1-12, a contest for the most able fisherman, and recognition of the longest serving processing workers in Kodiak seafood companies. See the ComFish lineup on Facebook.
*Trident Seafoods received a gold award from the Northwest Clean Air Agency's Partners for Clean Air program for 2017. The award goes to businesses that comply with all applicable air quality regulations for at least three years, and employ additional clean air practices in at least two categories, such as energy efficiency and emissions reductions.
*DJ Summers, one of Alaska's best fish writers, has left the Alaska Journal of Commerce to write a textbook on the economics, politics and business of cannabis.
"I'll remember covering Alaska's fishing industry the same way Marines remember boot camp and their first foreign deployment. It really sharpened my teeth covering something as complex, as politically charged, as segmented, and as culturally and economically significant as fisheries," Summers said.
He can be reached in Utah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laine Welch writes a weekly column on commercial fishing. Contact her at email@example.com