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Kotzebue fishery expects a big year

Commercial fishermen in the Arctic are readying their nets and boats in preparation for next month's chum run in the Kotzebue region.

And after last year's second-highest run on record, all involved are expecting another big year.

But big fish numbers don't always mean huge paydays. There are a lot of factors when dealing with the Kotzebue Sound fishery, including plane availability to fly the catches out, and the number of fish buyers on the beaches.

Maniilaq Services, LLC and Copper River Seafoods both confirmed last week that they will be buying in Kotzebue this summer, however Great Pacific Seafoods, the main buyer in Kotzebue for more than a decade is rumored to have pulled out. (Repeated requests for interviews were not returned by press time.)

With three buyers last year, the price per pound peaked early, at $0.78, but quickly dropped down as the market was flooded with salmon to about $0.45 - $0.48. The price averaged $0.56 per pound.

For longtime commercial and subsistence fisherman Chuck Schaeffer, the stakes are high this year with the potential for one less buyer, plus the abundant amount of salmon caught throughout the state last year, the demand for salmon might not be as high, he said.

"Last year was phenomenal," he said from Kotzebue last week. "You talk to any fisherman and we'll all tell you, we haven't seen fish like that in a long time. I think the market was flooded in terms of the buyers not being able to get rid of all the fish that they bought."

The harvest of 636,187 chum salmon was the second greatest on record and the 94 permit holders fishing was the highest in 20 years, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The total gross value of the catch to permit holders in 2014 was nearly $3 million.

As for the forecast this year, area Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish biologist Jim Menard, said it's likely to be another big year based on the parent-year escapements and returning age class data collected in the fishery and in the test fish samples taken from the Kobuk River last year. The department is expecting between 300,000 and 500,000 fish, Menard said.

"We know that the five-year-old component of the run is expected to be well above average and that's based on the four-year-old return last year," Menard said on Friday. "Usually you don't have a collapse the next year because the brothers and sisters are coming back this year."

No restrictions are expected this year in the subsistence fishery while the management objectives on the commercial side are to allow adequate escapement to ensure healthy, future runs, as well as to meet subsistence harvest uses.

If the commercial fishery is doing well, there will be six- to 12-hour fishing periods on any day of the week, except Saturday in the first two weeks of July and likely shorter fishing periods as the peak of the run comes in, according to the Fish and Game management plan.

"If buyers opt for longer fishing periods similar to the 12-hour periods in the late 1990s and early 2000s then there will likely be a one-day closure midweek unless the run is strong enough to allow fishing periods six days per week," the plan said.

The season starts on July 10 when buyers and permit holders are ready and the market is available.

Because none of the processing is done in Kotzebue, the fish have to be flown out daily. Several carriers of the commercial and freight varieties work long hours during the fishing season, but there is a limit to what they can take. Improvement plans to the Kotzebue airport may also cause a snag in getting fish out, if there are airport closures after July 10.

As for the two buyers that have indicated they will be back in Kotzebue, only Maniilaq had registered as of late last week.

"Regarding how the Kotzebue season looks, there is price and demand uncertainty due to sockeye pricing and quantity demand," said Maniilaq Services CEO Mike Scott in an email response. "It's not clear yet what impact that will have on Kotzebue keta (chum)."

Sockeye sells better than chum, Scott said. And the demand for chum goes down when sockeye prices are lower.

"Last season, sockeye prices were high and inventories were low as the Kotzebue season opened which resulted in higher demand and prices for Kotzebue keta. That's not the case this season."

As the Kodiak and Bristol Bay fisheries get rolling in the next few weeks, more will be known about demand and its impact on the price in Kotzebue.

"Bristol Bay had such a big year last year, that it's bound to affect fish prices overall," said Kotzebue Sound Fisheries Association president Bish Gallahorn. "I think it'll be a decent price, but not what it was last year."

One less buyer will also potentially affect the price for fishermen, Gallahorn added.

"Like two retail stores across the street from each other, it keeps the retail stores kind of honest," he said. "More competition is just better for the fishermen. And we all want what's best for the fishermen."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.