Copper River opener to kick off salmon season in week of May 12

  • Bill Green, at left, presents one of the season’s first Copper River king salmon to the Bridge Restaurant partners Patrick Hoogerhyde, center and Al Levinsohn on May 18, 2012 in Anchorage. The state is forecasting a strong run of Copper River kings after a poor showing in 2018 that saw just a handful of commercial openings for the prized fish. (Photo / Michael Dinneen/AP)

Every spring, Alaska commercial fishermen hold their breaths before taking the plunge of salmon season and the unpredictability of what the runs will bring.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game does its best to forecast what fishermen might expect, but as it’s a prediction, fishermen have to take it with a grain of salt. This year, ADFG is forecasting fairly average sockeye salmon runs, even in Bristol Bay. However, pink salmon and chum runs may help make up for some of the lackluster sockeye runs and still-struggling king salmon runs across the state.

Prince William Sound, traditionally the first salmon fishery to hit the markets, is expected to open May 13 in the Copper River and Bering River districts, with the subsequent areas opening in June. The sockeye salmon are the most famous fish from the Copper River fishery, but the kings kick off the season with the annual airplane ceremonies in Anchorage and Seattle for the first king deliveries.

The forecast for a return 55,000 Copper River kings is about 20 percent above the recent 10-year average run of 46,000 fish, according to the Prince William Sound 2019 forecast.

The forecast for sockeye salmon in the Copper, which is regarded as the most accurate forecast in the region, is about 1.4 million wild fish and 98,000 hatchery fish, about 31 percent and 69 percent below the recent 10-year averages respectively. But ADFG warns caution there as well; last year, the summer brought about 1 million fewer fish than the forecast predicted and there were just a handful of openings for kings.

“This forecast is uncertain and should be interpreted with caution as poor runs of many Gulf of Alaska sockeye salmon stocks in 2018 suggest there is considerable likelihood of over-forecasting in 2019,” the forecast states.

Pink salmon may be a bright spot as the summer moves along for Prince William Sound, though. ADFG’s forecast projects about 23.5 million wild-run pink salmon to come back, largely based on good escapements in 2015 and 2017. That’s on top of an estimated 22.3 million pinks estimated to return to Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association facilities and an estimated 20.1 million to return to the Valdez Fisheries Development Association’s Solomon Gulch Hatchery.

Pink salmon runs have been unreliable in recent seasons, though. The 2018 season was disappointing for salmon fishermen all over the Gulf of Alaska. Pink salmon catches were dismal and sockeye runs were late, if they appeared at all. The 2016 pink salmon season was disastrously poor for Gulf of Alaska fishermen as well, with the federal government appropriating disaster funds to help make up for some of the loss.

Fisheries scientists have drawn possible connections between the poor pink salmon returns and persistent warm water conditions in the Gulf of Alaska through 2015 and 2016.

Bristol Bay benefited from some of that downturn in sockeye salmon, though. While the rest of the Gulf of Alaska struggled to meet escapement goals and still allow for commercial fishing, Bristol Bay fishermen and processors could barely keep up with record-breaking sockeye salmon runs last year.

Things might return to a little more normal this year, though. The 2019 projected total run of 40.18 million would allow for a commercial harvest of about 26.1 million to 27.6 million in Bristol Bay fisheries, according to Fish and Game’s forecast. For comparison, the total run in 2019 would be smaller than just the harvest in 2018; commercial fishermen hauled in 41.3 million sockeye in 2018, with a total estimated run of 62.3 million sockeye to all river systems.

The dearth in sockeye elsewhere helped keep prices higher for Bristol Bay fishermen, who caught all those sockeye and were able to sell them for an average ex-vessel price of about $1.26 per pound, according to Fish and Game.

“2018 prices were strong, Bristol Bay processors and fishermen were able to move a lot of product at a pretty high price,” said McDowell Group seafood economist Garrett Evridge. “Part of that high price came from weakness in other areas of the state, so that’s a factor. In terms of the 2019 price, the market appears to be pretty stable when you consider the level of inventory. We haven’t heard too many reports of significant existing inventory out there.”

Salmon prices fluctuate wildly in-season, with prices typically starting higher early in the season and moving down as more fish hit the market. Before the season begins, processors work on contracts both domestically and internationally, and though ADFG clearly states that salmon forecasts are subject to change, they do affect markets and prices, Evridge said.

“The bottom line is these forecasts can be off significantly and sometimes they’re right,” he said. “We should recognize that these are forecasts … Those Fish and Game forecasts are talked about at the highest level of negotiations and they do impact expectations.”

Forecasts aren’t the only thing that impact prices. Internationally, farmed salmon production can also affect how consumers demand and purchase fish. Producers like Norway and Chile have not increased production dramatically in the last few years and struggle with pests like sea lice, but other countries are working on expanding their industries. Iceland, for example, has been taking steps to expand its aquaculture industry dramatically over the next decade.

Evridge said outlook over the long term is for farmed salmon production to increase as high prices attract investment into aquatic farming. Trade conflicts between the U.S. and China and talk of new tariffs in the European Union on American seafood due to a trade dispute may also affect prices, though nothing is solidified.

The issue with forecasting prices is that many factors affect them, and the bottom line is that it’s never a clear projection, Evridge said.

“It’s just unknowable,” he said. “But I can say that in recent years we have seen strong prices basically because demand has been strong and demand has been stable. You have the industry that’s marketing and you have ASMI that’s investing significant time and resources into telling the story of Alaska salmon. We generally think that the Alaska name has value to the consumer. Thinking long-term, there are certainly challenges right now with salmon management, but we do have a robust, scientifically managed, sustainably harvested fishery. We are endeavoring to preserve these fisheries in perpetuity.”

One bright spot this year may be an exceptionally large run of chum salmon, with a potential harvest of 29 million chums, potentially the largest in the state’s history. Last year brought huge numbers of chum salmon to Norton Sound, and this year may bring a burst of them to Southeast Alaska.

Between the region’s hatcheries, an estimated 18 million chum may return. The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association alone is forecasting almost 9 million chums to return, with just shy of 8 million available for commercial harvest.

That may help make up for some of the other disappointing forecasts in Southeast. Pink salmon forecasts are weak, with only 18 million forecasted, and king salmon stocks in the Chilkat, King Salmon and Unuk rivers not even projected to meet their escapement goals.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/24/2019 - 12:12pm

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