Alaska fishermen could catch 85 percent more salmon this year (nearly a hundred million more) if state forecasts hold true.
That’s good news for fishermen in many Gulf of Alaska regions who in 2018 suffered some of the worst catches in 50 years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a total salmon catch of 213.2 million fish for 2019, compared to about 116 million salmon last year. The increase comes from expectations of another big haul of sockeyes, increases in pinks and a possible record catch of chum salmon.
The harvest breakdown calls for 112,000 chinook salmon in areas outside of Southeast Alaska. The catch for the Southeast troll fleet, which is determined by a treaty with Canada, will be 101,300 kings, a 5,600-fish increase.
For sockeyes, a catch of just under 42 million is projected, about 9 million fewer than last year. A harvest of nearly 138 million pink salmon would be 97 million more than last summer, and a coho harvest of 4.6 million would be an increase of 900,000 over 2018.
Chums could set a record with a projected catch of 29 million, a boost of 9 million and well above the 25 million chum catch record set in 2017.
Some highlights and lookbacks:
Copper River’s commercial sockeye salmon catch for 2019 is pegged at 756,000 million and 31,000 for chinook (all fisheries). Managers said the forecast should “be interpreted with caution as poor runs of many Gulf sockeye stocks in 2018 suggest there is considerable likelihood of overforecasting.” Last year the Copper River drift gillnet catch of 47,000 reds was the second lowest in 100 years.
Southeast Alaska’s pink salmon run is predicted to be weak this summer with a catch of 18 million, half of the 10-year average. That follows on a catch of just over 8 million pinks in 2018, the 51st lowest since 1962. Biologists said a big source of uncertainty is abnormally warm Gulf sea surface waters “may have a negative impact on the survival of pink salmon.”
At Kodiak, the predicted 27 million pink salmon harvest is in the “excellent” category and compares to a catch of just 6 million pinks in 2018. The total salmon take last year at Kodiak of just 9 million salmon compares to a 10-year average of over 21 million.
Upper Cook Inlet could see a slightly improved sockeye harvest of 3 million. The 2018 catch at UCI of 1.3 million sockeyes was 61 percent less than the 10-year average and the smallest harvest since 1975.
At Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula, where an astonishing 128 sockeye salmon were caught last year, a hopeful harvest of about 965,000 reds is projected this year.
At Bristol Bay, a sockeye harvest of about 27 million compares to a catch of 41.3 million in 2018. That stemmed from a run of over 62 million reds, the largest on record. It was the fourth consecutive year that the Bay’s sockeye runs topped 50 million.
State salmon managers don’t produce formal forecasts for most salmon runs in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Region, but they predict continued good returns to Norton Sound, Kotzebue and a half-million chum catch at the Lower Yukon.
Salmon fishermen near Nome set records for coho and chum catches last year, and a 4,000 sockeye take was the second highest ever. Pink salmon runs also were stronger than expected but met with little interest from the one buyer.
Fishermen at Kotzebue Sound caught a record 695,153 chum salmon in 2018 and managers said a 700,000 chum harvest would be possible if there was a market for the fish.
The lack of a buyer will beach Kuskokwim salmon fishermen for the fourth year, although it’s not due to a lack of fish. For example, the weir on the 75-mile Kanektok River did not operate in 2018 due to a lack of funding, but aerial surveys showed the second-highest escapement of sockeye salmon on record.
A fish plant at Platinum that bought salmon, herring and halibut starting in 2009 closed abruptly in 2015. According to owner Coastal Villages Region Fund, a group created to provide economic benefit for its 20 member communities, the plant “never became sustainable” and was a big money loser. The CVRF has instead invested in five vessels, the largest at 341 feet, that fish for pollock, crab and cod in the Bering Sea. Three of the boats are homeported in Seattle. CVRF claims it “has grown to be the largest seafood owner/operator headquartered in Alaska.”
Herring on hold
Herring at Sitka Sound is still a waiting game in a fishery that’s usually come and gone by late March. Many seiners and tenders left March 28, reported KCAW, along with the state research vessel Kestrel, which does fish sampling. Most of the herring, which are valued only for their eggs or roe, have so far been too immature for an opener.
By April 3 more than 21 miles of herring spawn had been mapped, usually signaling the beginning of the end for a fishery. But spotters were still flying, and biologist Eric Coonradt with Fish and Game in Sitka said some seiners and processors were sticking around.
“I feel like there’s still time left,” Coonradt told KCAW. “We still have the ability to find fish, if the fish kind of split up, larger versus smaller fish. But some years they don’t do that. So it’s just kind of a wait and see game.”
Seiners were hoping to haul in nearly 13,000 tons of roe herring after a total bust last year that produced just 2,800 tons. Sitka Sound’s latest herring fishery was April 15 in 2002. The last time there was no commercial fishery there was in 1977.
Meanwhile, Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay is expecting a big run and an earlier start as soon as mid-April.
Fish and Game area manager Tim Sands told KDLG in Dillingham that unusually warm waters are making it tough to predict run timing.
“This year there’s no ice anywhere near Bristol Bay as a whole," Sands told KDLG. "Sea surface temperatures are much warmer. We have a couple different models — one based on sea ice coverage and one based on sea surface temperature. Those models worked relatively well when conditions were normal. But we’re so far from normal this year, we don’t have a lot of faith in the predictive ability of our models.”
Budget cuts and a lack of aerial surveys for three years also have also contributed to the uncertainty and caused a more conservative approach to the Togiak herring fishery.
“We kind of retroactively introduced this idea of reducing the exploitation rate by 2 percent a year for years of poor data,” he told KDLG.
Togiak has a 2019 herring catch quota of 26,930 tons, up slightly from last year.