Fewer sockeyes, chum part of state's forecast for this year's salmon season

Alaska’s salmon industry could get a boost in world markets if early projections for this season’s harvest hold true. State number crunchers are forecasting a fishery that’s similar to last year’s catch, with two important exceptions -- fewer sockeye and chum salmon.

Preliminary projections peg the statewide harvest this year at roughly 142 million fish, down from last year’s forecast of 153 million. The actual catch fell well below that number, however, coming in at 136 million salmon worth $272 million at the docks.

The numbers are still being tweaked, but state fish managers expect the following: 419,000 king salmon (up from last year’s catch of 360,000); 4.78 million coho (compared with last year’s catch of 4.2 million); only 15.3 million chum salmon (well below the 2000 take of nearly 25 million); 28.7 million sockeye (down from last year’s harvest of 33.5 million reds); and nearly 93 million pinks (up from 74 million last year).

Of course, the only sure thing about preseason projections is that they’re likely to be wrong. Fishery scientists point to major regime shifts in the Bering Sea and North Pacific that directly affect salmon survival. That’s likely to continue to cause trouble for many species, most notably chums and king salmon in Western Alaska regions.

The world’s biggest red salmon run at Bristol Bay also appears to be experiencing negative affects, presumably from changes in ocean conditions. That region is projected to once again yield a reduced harvest of just 17 million fish, down from roughly 21 million last year.

Meanwhile, some Alaska fishermen are urging the federal government to restrict U.S. imports of Chilean farmed salmon during the prime harvesting months of May through September. The United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 24 fishing groups, claims Chile is flooding the U.S. market with lower priced salmon, thereby driving down prices for wild fish.

Chile accounted for 49 percent of all U.S. salmon imports last year, up from 38 percent in 1999. According to Chris McDowell of the Salmon Market Information Service, Chile is the leader in salmon imports by a margin of 39 percent over its closest competitor, Canada.

The two countries combined accounted for 83 percent of salmon import volume last year, or nearly 273 million pounds. McDowell said 91 percent of Chile’s volume is salmon fillets, compared with 16 percent for Canada. U.S. imports of Chilean salmon grew 229 percent between 1995 and 2000, while imports from Canada grew 60 percent during the same period.

Call for better science

Alaska legislators unanimously passed a resolution asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to use better science when curtailing fishing in the North Pacific.

HJR 10, introduced by freshman representative Drew Scalzi of Homer, also declares legislative support for the restrictions now in place resulting from the controversial "biological opinion" on Steller sea lions published by NMFS last November and asks that agency to work with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to develop new regulations by the end of next year.

The resolution declares that the reasons for declines in the Steller population are "poorly understood." It also states that NMFS "lacks an adequate scientific basis" for its regulations, "and has not explained why the restrictions are scientifically or legally necessary."

The resolution further declares that the restrictions resulted in closures to the majority of the groundfish fisheries, caused losses of $170 million to fishing fleets and "immeasurable" economic losses to other businesses, harvesters, their families and in state and local tax revenues. The resolution now goes before the Senate Resources Committee.

Halibut farming

Halibut will be the next large-scale operation for fish farmers. That’s according to international aquaculture expert John Forster, who presented his findings recently to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

While technological and biological problems will prevent halibut from making it to market in large quantities in the next five years, Forster said after that all bets are off.

According to the weekly publication Laws for the Sea, when asked if farmed halibut could "totally trounce wild halibut" in the next 20 years, Forster answered without hesitation: "Absolutely. I think halibut has it, within that time scale, to be a major farmed fish." He also suggested the time frame could be far shorter.

A study on global prospects for halibut farming done by Forster for the state of Alaska in 1999 projected world production could reach 6.2 million pounds this year, and he said he stands by that estimate. Halibut farms are now operating in Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Nova Scotia, to name but a few places. The University of Maine is funding research and development of halibut farms in that state.

Forster said halibut has many natural features that make it appealing to fish farmers. It utilizes feed very efficiently, meaning it’s very cost effective to grow in a farm environment and is also very resistant to common marine diseases.

Updated: 
11/12/2016 - 5:51pm

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