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Business/Economy

Converging forces make for worst Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon season in decades

Commercially harvested red or sockeye salmon, Kenai Peninsula (iStock / Getty Images)

Low prices, an oddly timed sockeye run and another year of very poor Kenai king returns combined to result in one of the worst Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishing seasons on record.

The 2020 Upper Cook Inlet harvest of roughly 1.2 million salmon was less than half the recent 10-year average harvest of 3.2 million fish and the estimated cumulative ex-vessel value of approximately $5.2 million was the worst on record, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Upper Cook Inlet Commercial Salmon Fishery Season Summary.

The average ex-vessel, or unprocessed wholesale value of salmon caught by the Upper Cook Inlet fleet over the previous 10 years was $27 million and the last time it didn’t reach at least $10 million was 2001 when the total ex-vessel harvest value was $7.7 million. The last time the nominal value of the Upper Cook Inlet fishery — not adjusted for inflation — was at least as low as 2020 was 1972 when a harvest of 2.2 million salmon netted $3.5 million for fishermen.

However, the dismal result of the 2020 fishery was not because the primary target species, sockeye, didn’t show up. The preseason estimate for the total Upper Cook Inlet sockeye return of nearly 4.3 million fish, which corresponded to a preseason commercial harvest estimate of roughly 1.7 million sockeye, was just 2 percent less than the total sockeye return of just more than 4.3 million fish to the region’s river systems.

The total 2020 Upper Cook Inlet sockeye harvest of just 669,751 fish was 1.9 million less than the 10-year average. The chinook harvest of 2,833 fish; the coho harvest of 133,761; and the chum harvest of 28,355 salmon were all well off from recent averages as well. The Upper Cook Inlet pink salmon harvest — traditionally larger during even years — of 326,594 fish was 42 percent better than the 10-year average harvest.

ADFG Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery management biologist Brian Marston said this year was the latest in a string of several years when the region had roughly average sockeye returns but commercial fishermen were challenged in harvesting them.

“The primary problem that limited our ability to harvest sockeye was the abysmal return of chinook; to put a finer point on it, the return of late-run Kenai River chinook,” Marston said.

Continued poor late-run chinook returns to the Kenai have forced managers to restrict commercial fishing opportunity for Upper Cook Inlet sockeye, particularly in the near shore areas where the fish are more likely to intermingle.

The 2020 Kenai River late-run chinook escapement of an estimated 11,499 large chinook meant the stock failed to reach the lower end of its escapement goal for the second straight year despite season-long restrictions to both the sport and the eastside setnet commercial fisheries. Approximately 250 large Kenai chinook combined were harvested in the sport and East Side setnet fisheries based on preliminary estimates by the department.

Managers initially estimated a return of more than 22,700 large late-run Kenai chinook, which would’ve been on par with the recent five-year average but about half the 10-year average, according to ADFG.

The restrictions and later than normal sockeye returns largely contributed to the upper end of the sockeye escapement goals being exceeded on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

The 1.81 million sockeye escapement in the Kenai was far greater than the upper end of the 1.3 million fish sustainable escapement goal and the story was similar at the nearby Kasilof where 545,654 sockeye passed the sonar, more than 225,000 fish greater than the upper end of the biological escapement goal.

The sockeye escapement was the largest in the 38 years of the sonar project on the river, according to the summary. Sockeye returns to the Susitna River and smaller Upper Cook Inlet systems were well below preseason forecasts but mostly within escapement objectives.

The midpoint of the Kenai sockeye run was Aug. 6 this year, compared to a historical average of July 25, mostly due to a mid-August spike in sockeye numbers. The Aug. 17 Kenai sonar count of 134,874 sockeye is the latest day for peak sockeye passage in the river that the department has observed.

Marston noted those fish largely arrived after the peak of commercial fishing activity and were “blushed” or turning color, and thus had minimal commercial value.

Salmon markets partly depressed by a lack of demand stemming from the pandemic also impacted the value of the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet fishery. Sockeye prices averaged $1.24 per pound, the lowest since 2009, according to the department.

Average prices of 87 cents per pound for Cook Inlet coho; 25 cents per pound for pinks; and $3.57 per pound for Upper Cook Inlet chinook were more in line with recent years.

Statewide summary

Commercial fishermen across Alaska have harvested approximately 116.8 million salmon worth more than $295 million so far in 2020, according to the statewide salmon summary published Nov. 9.

The $295 million ex-vessel value for the harvest was less than half of last year’s value of $673.4 million, when more than 208 million salmon were harvested.

Odd-year salmon harvests are typically larger due to the two-year return cycle for pinks in Southeast and Prince William Sound.

Bristol Bay sockeye again dominated the statewide salmon scene with a harvest of more than 39.4 million fish — just shy of 200 million pounds — generating an ex-vessel value of $139.4 million, or more than 45 percent of the value of the statewide catch.

The statewide average price of 76 cents per pound for sockeye was roughly half the 2019 average of $1.45 per pound; however, the 2020 average prices for other species were in line with last year.

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