KENAI — If measured in sheer volume of fish, the Upper Cook Inlet commercial harvest of salmon was low: preliminary Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates show it at about 20 percent less than the 10-year average harvest. But, when the $2.25 price per pound for sockeye is factored in, the ex-vessel value of the 2014 harvest was high at $35 million — making it the second year in a row that Cook Inlet commercial harvesters have seen lower-than-average harvests with higher-than-average values.
Last year, the commercial harvest in Upper Cook Inlet was valued at just more than $39 million, ranking it as the eighth-highest ex-vessel value since 1960, according to Fish and Game data. This year, commercial fishermen made just more than $35 million, coming in at the ninth-highest ex-vessel value since 1960 and the third-best in the last 10 years.
While commercial fishermen harvest all five species of Pacific salmon between the Northern District and Central District, which make up the Upper Cook Inlet area, sockeye salmon are the most valuable. More than 93 percent of the total value of the commercial fishery in the last 20 years has come from sockeye salmon.
But, the value of the sockeye harvest wasn’t spread equally among fishermen — a trend in recent years as Upper Cook Inlet setnetters find themselves on an increasingly restrictive fishing schedule due to low numbers of king salmon returning to area streams.
Between the two types of commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet, drift gillnetting boats caught approximately 1.47 million sockeye salmon, or about 64 percent of the total salmon harvest in Upper Cook Inlet. In 2013, drift fishermen caught about 1.65 million sockeye salmon, compared to the setnet harvest of 992,000 fish. In 2012, when setnet fishermen were shut down for the bulk of the season, drift fishermen took nearly 93 percent of the total salmon harvest.
Typically, harvest is more evenly split between drift and set gillnet fishermen, said Commercial Area Management Biologist Pat Shields in a previous Clarion interview. However, as sockeye salmon continue to return to the inlet in large numbers and king salmon numbers continue to drop, disparities in harvest between the two gear types have become more pronounced.
“Typically it’s not quite a 50-50 split between drifters and setnetters,” said Assistant Area Management Biologist Aaron Dupuis. “Usually the drifters get a bit more, but the difference increased quite a bit since we’ve had a low abundance of kings.”
Among setnetters, a disparity in harvest on the east side of the Cook Inlet was also more pronounced as setnetters in the Kenai and East Forelands section of the set gillnet fishery found themselves in the water for six openings during the 2014 fishing season, while the Kasilof section was opened 14 times.
However, a special harvest area concentrated at the mouth of the Kasilof River and open to all setnet fishermen who fish on the east side of the Cook Inlet was opened for hundreds of hours in July.
The total sockeye salmon harvest in the upper subdistrict was approximately 705,000 fish — the second lowest since 2001.
“It’s not unprecedented for them to fish those few days,” Dupuis said of the set gillnet fishery. There have been times when we’re trying to make goals in the Kenai River that they’re kept out of the water.
“But, given the abundance of sockeye salmon in the inlet, it is unusual for them to be kept out of water.”
Dupuis said the low numbers of king salmon — a fish caught more often in the setnet fishery than in the drift gillnet fishery — are primarily responsible for the restrictive fishing regime setnetters find themselves operating under.
The setnet fishery was restricted in July to allow king passage into the Kenai River, and finally closed July 26, when escapement was estimated at less than 10,000 kings. An estimated 2,055 kings were caught by Upper Subdistrict setnetters.
ADFG’s final escapement estimate was about 16,000 kings into the Kenai, after in-river mortality was removed, and meeting the sustainable escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000 Kenai kings.
Inlet-wide, an estimated 4,331 kings were harvested, with a price of about $2.80 per pound for those that were sold, according to the ADFG summary. The total king take is about 70 percent less than the recent 10-year average
Elsewhere in Upper Cook Inlet, setnetters in the western subdistrict, fished three 16-hour periods a week from July 5 through Aug. 5 as the Crescent River sockeye run was considered above-average. Setnetters in that district caught 29,500 sockeye salmon.
Kalgin Island commercial fishermen and those in the Northern District were below average.
On Kalgin Island, approximately 39,000 sockeye salmon were harvested — the 10-year average is 64,000 — and in the Northern District 35,700 sockeye salmon were harvested, which is about 60 percent less than the 47-year average.
In addition to sockeye, commercial fishermen harvested nearly 134,00 coho salmon, about 29 percent less than the 10-year average; 632,000 pink salmon, about 75 percent greater than the 10-year harvest; and about 115,000 chum salmon.
In Lower Cook Inlet, pink salmon harvests were much higher than those of other salmon. Fishermen harvested 298,000 of them, and the vast majority were caught in the Outer District, an area along the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula that starts southeast of Elizabeth Island and runs north along the coast toward Seward, ending at a point just south of Aialik Bay.
Fishermen harvested nearly 164,000 pink salmon in that district, though that figure was down from a 10-year harvest average of about 546,000 pink salmon.
Commercial harvests of sockeye and chum salmon in the Outer District were significantly higher than the ten-year harvest average in the area.
Elsewhere in Lower Cook Inlet, fishermen caught fewer chinook salmon, sockeye salmon and chum salmon than the 10-year harvest average, according to the preliminary lower Cook Inlet season summary.
When the season ended, commercial fishing and hatchery cost recovery and brood stock gathering efforts led to a harvest estimate of about 651,000 salmon — about 68 percent by the commercial fishermen and 32 percent by hatcheries, according to the summary.