Alaska's 2016 salmon harvest will be down by 40 percent of last year's catch if the fish show up as predicted. But hints of good news can be found around the edges of that discouraging forecast.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is calling for a total catch of 161 million this summer; the 2015 harvest topped 268 million fish.
The shortfall stems from a big pink salmon fall off due largely to the species' two-year cycle in which odd-numbered years see the biggest returns. The humpy forecast of 90 million represents a drop of 100 million fish from last summer.
Here's the statewide catch breakdown for other salmon species:
• Red salmon: Nearly 48 million, down by more than 7 million reds from last year;
• Silver salmon: 4.4 million, up by a half-million fish;
• Chum salmon: Nearly 19 million, up about 500,000 fish over last season;
• Chinook salmon: 99,000 for all areas except Southeast, where the harvest will be determined according to Pacific Treaty agreements with Canada. Last year's statewide chinook catch was 521,612 including Southeast, by far the biggest producer.
It all adds up to fewer salmon for global buyers — and some hopeful market signs for Alaska salmon prices.
A failure of both farmed and wild salmon fisheries in Japan has triggered a surge of demand for Alaska sockeye. October to December red salmon exports to Japan were up 320 percent over the previous year, reported the website seafood.com, and sales are expected to remain higher as inventories clear out prior to the new fishing season.
Alaska could also benefit from the misfortunes of the world's top farmed salmon producers, a scenario that is already pushing up salmon prices.
Farmed fish sales from Chile, the largest supplier to the U.S., may drop up to 20 percent this year due to a toxic algal bloom, and production is expected to be hurt well into 2017. According to Chile's National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, 38 salmon farms have been affected, with nearly 24 million fish killed.
London's Financial Times reported that Chilean salmon prices have increased 25 percent to nearly $5 a pound since December.
Norway, the world's largest farmed fish producer, is unlikely to fill the salmon shortfall, as that country is dealing with severe fish loss due to sea lice.
"We expect to see a global supply shock," warned Kolbjørn Giskeødegård, director of seafood at Nordea Bank, a financial services group in the Nordic and Baltic region.
Halibut prices sky high
Dock prices for halibut started the season in the mid-$6 range at major ports, about 25 cents a pound higher than last year. The fishery opened March 19 and was particularly strong in Southeast Alaska.
"Fishing is fantastic," said Dave Ohmer, manager at Trident Seafoods in Petersburg.
Halibut prices are usually broken into three weight categories.
• Up to 20 pounds: $6.45 a pound;
• 20-40 pounds: $6.65 a pound;
• More than 40 pounds: $6.85 a pound.
Halibut prices usually drop a bit after the first couple weeks of the fishery. But in recent years, the dock price has seldom dipped under $5 a pound.
Federal data show that 676,000 pounds of halibut crossed Alaska docks through March 25, slightly more than last year at the same time. Alaska's share of the Pacific halibut catch this year is 21.45 million pounds, 200,000 pounds more than a year ago. The fishery runs through Nov. 7.
Researcher offers answers on shrinking halibut
It turns out that fishing is a prime cause of shrinking halibut across Alaska.
A Pacific halibut that weighed 120 pounds 30 years ago tips the scales at less than 45 pounds today even though it's the same age. That's especially true for fish in the biggest fishing holes – the central and western Gulf of Alaska.
"We found that fishing can explain between 30 and 100 percent of the observed declines in size at age," said Jane Sullivan, a University of Alaska graduate student who's investigating the impacts of fishing on halibut growth.
"We took all the information that we knew about the halibut population in the 1980s, when fish were big, and used a computer model to fish this population at different harvest levels to see how fishing affects size at age," she explained. "Declines in size at age become greater with age because fishing effects compound with each year of fishing."
Sullivan modeled several scenarios, including reducing the 32-inch minimum size of halibut caught in the fishery, and releasing halibut more than 60 inches long. Neither appeared to make any difference.
The research also found that bycatch of halibut in other fisheries is not a key factor.
"The majority of halibut caught as bycatch in these other fisheries are much smaller-sized halibut," Sullivan said.
In terms of potential fishery changes to protect slow-growing halibut, the science points to an unpopular solution.
"The only management action that appears to make any difference is to reduce fishing effort or harvest. By reducing effort, you reduce the selective harvest of large halibut," she said.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.