Southeast Alaska guides prep for strong king salmon season

Photo/Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

Scientists are expecting Southeast Alaska’s marine waters to fill with king salmon this summer — and fishing guides are among those angling for a boost to their businesses as a result of the strong forecasts.

Southeast Alaska’s all-gear allowable marine king salmon harvest is 439,000, the largest it has been in several decades. The all-gear harvest includes sport, purse seine, drift gillnet, set gillnet and troll users. For 2014, the sport share of that harvest allotment is 81,583 kings.

The all-gear harvest is the number of kings, or chinooks, that can be caught in Southeast Alaska waters under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, based on an abundance index developed by U.S. and Canadian scientists.

The 2014 abundance index for king salmon is 2.57, the highest it has been since scientists started generating it in this form in 1999.

That number represents the strength of several runs that swim through Southeast waters: wild and hatchery fish from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and wild fish from Southeast Alaska.

“It promises very good fishing,” said Tom Ohaus, who owns Angling Unlimited, a guide operation in Sitka.

Ohaus started marketing a special package for May as soon as he heard the news. Forecasts elsewhere in the state aren’t as strong, and Ohaus said he wanted to encourage Alaskans to fish Southeast.

“They’re the best fighting and the best food quality salmon are ever going to be,” Ohaus said.

Heath Hilyard, executive director of SouthEast Alaska Guides organization, said all the operators he has talked to are excited about the king numbers.

“Those waters are going to be boiling with king salmon,” Hilyard said.

The strong abundance index means liberal king fishing regulations. As of April 2, Alaska residents fishing in Southeast and Yakutat have a bag and possession limit of three king salmon 28 inches or greater in length, while nonresidents will be limited to one king of that size, with a second 28-inch or larger fish allowed in May and June. Nonresidents are also limited to six kings for the year.

Salmon numbers driven by southern stocks

Alaska Department of Fish and Game manager Dan Gray said that the number of all-gear fish this year is driven by a large hatchery component coming from Oregon and Washington.

The salmon come from Oregon and Washington, but spend time in the Gulf of Alaska before migrating back south. Alaska gets a crack at catching them on their way south, Gray said.

ADFG Fisheries Scientist John Carlile said the biggest factor in the strong 2014 allowable harvest is the Columbia River Upriver Bright stock, a fall chinook stock that returns to the headwaters of the Columbia each year. When those kings enter the Columbia at its mouth on the Oregon-Washington border, they are still shiny, not dark colored like some kings, he said.

Dani Evenson, another ADFG fisheries scientist said the Columbia River is seeing stronger runs that it has in decades, since before the Bonneville Dam was built in the 1930s.

Evenson said the superabundance of Columbia salmon is the result of several factors. In general, Oregon and Washington’s returns have been more robust than Alaska’s in recent years.

The returning kings in 2014 went out during high-water years on the Columbia, Evenson said. That means there was more water over the top of the dam, making the river was colder — which kings like — and higher to help the kings get pushed out to sea.

Carlile and Evenson are both members of the Chinook Technical Committee’s analytical workgroup, which is part of the Pacific Salmon Commission and sets the abundance index each year.

The Columbia brights are one of seven major drivers for the Southeast Alaska abundance figure, and one of about 30 stocks included in the indicator.

Evenson said an increase in the salmon expected to return to the west coast of Vancouver Island, and increases in the returns expected to other streams in Oregon and Washington, also affect the allowable catch.

Alaska’s hatchery fish are not included in the all-gear calculation because when the treaty was drafted in 1995, Southeast was just gearing up its hatchery production and Alaska didn’t want to disincentivize new hatcheries from getting started. So those fish are considered add-ons after the all-gear number is figured.

Despite the strong abundance index, Carlile said managers will still face challenges this summer. Alaska’s wild salmon stocks are not as strong as the more southerly streams, so ADFG is working on a way to protect those fish, while still enabling fishers to catch the allowable allocation of the more southerly stocks.

Halibut regulations hold steady

Kings are the bright spot for Southeast Alaska charter fishing, but overall the industry looks healthy, Hilyard said.

“I’m seeing some stability return to the sector,” Hilyard said.

Hilyard said the economy and the regulations are both contributing to that stabilization. Operators have also worked to manage expectation, and this year’s halibut regulation is similar enough to 2013 to help as well, he said — one fish shorter than 44 inches or longer than 76 inches.

The new halibut catch sharing plan also allows charter operators to lease fish from commercial quota holders, which is called the guided angler fish, or GAF, program.

Hilyard said he only knows of one operator in Southeast using GAF: Petersburg’s Stan Malcolm, who owns and operates Magic Man Charters.

Malcolm leased a little more than 800 pounds of halibut, or about 30 fish for the summer. He’s already started informing clients that he’ll have extra fish available, and they can decide whether or not to pay for an extra fish at the time they catch the fish, he wrote in an email.

Malcolm said he’ll offer the extra fish at a cost that just recoups what he paid for the quota.

“I did it to offer my clients a better experience at a reasonable cost than is possible under current regulations,” Malcolm wrote.

This year, the calculation from commercial quota to charter fish was favorable, but that will likely change in the future after the number is based on the size of fish caught, so this may be the only time it’s economically sensible to do so, he wrote.

11/21/2016 - 9:26am