Alaska’s commercial salmon harvest came in below forecast in 2018, largely due to pink salmon

Bristol Bay's commercial sockeye salmon fishery boomed in 2018, but on the other side of the Alaska Peninsula it was a terrible year for Chignik.

The statewide value of Alaska's commercial salmon harvest this year was down 13 percent compared to the 2017 season, according to preliminary numbers released this month by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Fishermen caught fewer salmon compared to last year, as expected, but the harvest also fell short of the state's forecast.

About 115 million salmon were harvested this year. That total is probably in the lower quarter of commercial harvests dating back to 1975, said Forrest Bowers, acting director at Fish and Game in the division of commercial fisheries.

"That's offset somewhat by the relatively high proportion of the harvest that's comprised of sockeye salmon and the strength of the sockeye salmon market," he said.

The preliminary ex-vessel value for all Alaska commercial salmon harvested this season was $595.2 million. (Ex-vessel is the price paid to fishermen from processors.) In 2017, that value was $685 million.

Sockeye salmon accounted for about 59 percent of the total harvest value this year, at $349.2 million, and 44 percent of the total harvest at nearly 50 million fish. Chum salmon were the second most valuable species.

That 13 percent drop in value for all commercial salmon compared to 2017 is "not a lot," Bowers said.


Last year, the commercial salmon harvest was about 223 million fish. This year's catch of about 115 million fish missed a state forecast in March that projected a harvest of 147 million fish. That's largely because of the pink salmon, Bowers said.

"Sockeye salmon harvest has been pretty constant for the last four years or so, but pink salmon has been oscillating," he said. "We were forecasting almost 70 million pink salmon harvest, and we had 40 million."

The state's pink salmon returns in 2016 were so bad that there was a federal disaster declaration for Gulf of Alaska pink salmon fisheries. The pinks returning this season were the offspring of the ones that spawned that year.

Lower pink salmon numbers this season are likely the result of two main factors, Bowers said: that disaster in 2016, and also warmer water conditions in the North Pacific Ocean in recent years.

"We know the warm water isn't necessary favorable for salmon production, so we think that has a role to play," he said.

[Report: Early in the season, Alaska commercial salmon harvests are lagging]

For Alaska king salmon, the 2018 total commercial harvest value was the lowest since limited entry began in 1975.

The harvest numbers from Fish and Game are preliminary, and can change later.

Bristol Bay's sockeye salmon run of 62.3 million fish this season is the largest on record, according to Fish and Game. The commercial harvest of 41.3 million sockeye there topped the forecast and was the second biggest harvest on record. The ex-vessel value of $281 million set a new record.

Just on the other side of the Alaska Peninsula from Bristol Bay, the Chignik River had its poorest sockeye salmon run on record since statehood, the agency said. It was so bad, there was no commercial fishing targeting sockeye salmon in the Chignik Management Area.

"Essentially didn't have a fishery in Chignik this year," Bowers said.

['No fish and no hope': Poor sockeye salmon run takes a toll on Chignik]

The commercial chum harvest in Kotzebue this year was a record high. In Norton Sound, the harvest ranged from above average to record-size for chum, pink, sockeye and coho salmon, according to Fish and Game.

"Even though those areas are relatively small producers, the fisheries up there are a really important part of the economy," Bowers said, "and it's interesting to see the trend there, where these fisheries in the Arctic … seem to be outperforming salmon fisheries in other parts of the state."

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.