“Unprecedented” is how fishery managers are describing sockeye catches at Bristol Bay, which topped 1 million fish for seven days straight at the Nushagak district last week and neared the 2 million mark on several days.
By July 9, Alaska’s statewide sockeye salmon catch was approaching 32 million, of which more than 25 million came from Bristol Bay. The only other region getting good sockeye catches was the Alaska Peninsula, where nearly 4.6 million reds were landed so far.
The Alaska Peninsula also was far ahead of all other regions for pink salmon catches with over 3.3 million taken out of a total statewide tally of just over 5.4 million so far.
Pink salmon run in distinct two year cycles with odd years being stronger, and the preseason forecast calls for a total Alaska harvest of 124.2 million pinks this summer.
The timing for peak pink harvests is still several weeks away; likewise for chums, and most cohos will arrive in mid-August.
Alaska salmon managers are projecting the 2021 statewide salmon catch to top 190 million fish, a 61% increase over last year’s take of about 118 million salmon. By July 9, the statewide catch for all species had topped 41 million fish.
There’s still lots of fishing left to go, and so far, the most sluggish catches were coming out of Southeast, where only 258,000 salmon were landed by last week.
On the Yukon River, summer chum salmon returns are the lowest on record and state managers will request a disaster declaration for the second year in a row.
Norton Sound primes for pinks – Chums also are a bust at Norton Sound, where the runs have dropped to less than 5% of what is typical each summer.
“Right now, we don’t see any chum salmon openings. Something happened in the ocean that really knocked them down for this stretch,” said Jim Menard, regional manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Nome.
Menard told KNOM that low chum runs have been occurring throughout Western Alaska in general, and it could be a side effect of the high numbers of pink salmon that have been surging into the region.
“Five years running we’ve had incredible pink salmon runs. And the even-numbered year pink runs in Norton Sound are a lot bigger than the odd-numbered years,” Menard said, adding that pink returns to the region’s rivers have skyrocketed to well over 10 million fish.
The shift in fish means a small fleet of Norton Sound purse seiners will test the waters for a new pink salmon fishery this summer. It will be a first experiment for seine gear fishing for humpies so far north, and Icicle Seafoods is lined up to buy all the pinks that the local boats pull in.
“If it’s possible to target pinks without adversely affecting the important subsistence and gillnet fleets, this pink salmon fishery warrants pursuing,” Menard said.
As far as the appearance of so many pinks, fish managers say it’s all about the food.
“They’re definitely the colonizers, for sure,” said Sam Rabung, director of the commercial fisheries division at Fish and Game. “I’ve had calls from people on the North Slope asking about fisheries because pink salmon are showing up there. I don’t know that they’re going to persist because it still freezes down up there, and so the eggs that are deposited in those rivers won’t generally survive. But they’re trying.”
As ocean waters warm, Rabung said, it changes the makeup of the plankton the pinks feed upon and the fish are following their healthier food sources northward.
“As the warmer water moves north, the warm water copepods, which are one of the main foods for salmon, move north with it. The cold water copepods have a high lipid, high fat content, so they’re very energy dense and have a lot of bang for the buck for eating on them,” he explained.
Warm water plankton don’t. And since salmon are a cold water species, he said warm waters also boost their metabolism, meaning they need more food to grow.
Rabung pointed to the 2018 Gulf of Alaska cod collapse that science has linked with a preceding multiyear, warm-water blob. The resulting food imbalance wiped out two cod year classes, and water temperatures that topped 60 degrees permeated to the ocean bottom and prevented cod eggs from hatching.
A changing ocean brings big challenges, he said, and paying attention to the impacts on fish can help managers better react.
“That’s a tough ship to turn around and it’s probably not going to reverse course in my career,” he said. “But what we can do is understand what the changes are and know what’s happening with the stocks and try to not exacerbate any negative effects by not being responsive in our management.”
In other fisheries: Catches for Dungeness crab at Southeast Alaska were going slow so far for 163 boats, but prices of $4.20 a pound are more than double last year’s. The crab fishery will run through mid-August and reopen in October.
Kodiak crabbers were getting $4.25 for their Dungeness, also more than double.
Norton Sound opened for king crab on June 15 with a 290,000 pound catch limit. Concerns over the depleted stock resulted in no buyers and only one participant who is selling crab locally.
Prince William Sound’s pot shrimp fishery remains open until mid-September with a catch limit of 70,000 pounds. A lingcod fishery opened in the Sound on July 1 for a catch of nearly 33,000 pounds.
Ling cod also opened at Cook Inlet with a 52,500 pound catch limit. The Inlet also opened July 1 for rockfish with a 150,000 pound harvest.
Cook Inlet also has a harvest for kelp washed up on beaches set at 86,000 pounds.
A scallop fishery opened on July 1 from Yakutat to the Bering Sea with a harvest of 345,000 pounds of shucked meats.
Alaska’s halibut catch was nearing 7.8 million pounds out of a nearly 19 million pound catch limit. Continuing demand for fresh fish has kept prices well over $5.75 a pound at most ports, reaching $7.50 across the board at Homer.
Prices for sablefish (black cod) also were on the rise in five weight categories. The weekly Fish Ticket by Alaska Boats & Permits showed prices ranging from $1.10 for two pounders to $6.25 a pound for 7 ups. Sablefish catches were approaching 27 million pounds out of a 43.4 million pound quota.
Fishing for pollock, cod, flounders and other groundfish also continues throughout the Gulf and Bering Sea.
Harbor views - Alaska has 90 ports along its rivers and marine waterways, from tiny to huge, according to the World Port Source. Thousands of fishermen and other mariners rely on ports and harbors to help maintain their livelihoods -- but how do they feel about their care and maintenance? A new project aims to find out.
“It’s gauging how clean people think the harbors are, why they are that way and how we can make them cleaner,” said Tav Ammu, an Alaska Sea Grant Fellow who also skippers a boat at Bristol Bay.
Ammu has created a project to survey fishermen’s perceptions on pollution and waste during his down time at the docks this summer in Dillingham. He will repeat the survey at Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula in the fall.
Ammu told KDLG he became interested in water quality and conservation while serving in the Navy.
“I did not feel there was enough attention towards cleanliness and sustainability and conservation. So, I got a master’s degree in marine systems and policies with the hope to bridge the gap between me who fishes and science or policy makers,” he said.
Ammu’s goal is to get baseline data on how people in the fishing community perceive harbor cleanliness and water quality, turn the survey results into a report and share it at the Alaska Harbor Master Forum in Anchorage in October.
Expo call - After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, Pacific Marine Expo will be back in Seattle on Nov. 18-20 at the Lumen Field Event Center. The call is out for speakers on topics relevant to mariners. Deadline for submissions is July 16. Visit www.pacificmarineexpo.com for more information.