Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen near 2M salmon harvest
KENAI — Salmon are rolling into Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishery.
The drift fleet and setnetters in Cook Inlet have been out frequently in the past two weeks and were out for extended hours Thursday. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also opened the drift gillnet fishery in the Expanded Kenai and Expanded Kasilof Sections of the Upper Subdistrict and the Anchor Point Section of the Lower Subdistrict for an additional 12-hour period on Friday to increase harvest on the sockeye salmon bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, according to an emergency order issued Thursday.
The salmon harvest came in just shy of 2 million as of Tuesday, with sockeye leading the pack at 1.6 million, followed by pink salmon at approximately 244,000 fish. Silvers and chum are starting to come in as well, with about 43,000 silvers and about 57,000 chums so far, according to Fish and Game’s inseason harvest estimates.
The drifters in the central district have brought in 868,959 fish so far as of Tuesday, with 648,248 sockeye and 147,740 pinks.
The chum salmon are mostly coming into the central district drifters — they accounted for 43,662 of the total 56,434 caught in the Upper Cook Inlet Central district.
All told, the setnetters in the Ninilchik, Coho, Kalifornsky and Salamatof sections have brought in about 629,000 fish as of Tuesday, according to Fish and Game’s data.
Similar to the total, the vast majority of those are sockeye, followed in numbers by pinks and kings.
Fish and Game is expecting large runs of sockeye to return to the Kenai River this year — the river is already more than halfway to its escapement goal of 1.1 million to 1.35 million fish, with 607,787 fish having passed the sonar as of Wednesday.
The department widely exceeded the upper end of its escapement goal last year, putting more than 1.7 million fish into the river by the end of counts on Aug. 26, according to Fish and Game data.
However, the harvest is less than would be expected from a high forecast, said Division of Commercial Fisheries Area Management Biologist Pat Shields.
It looks like the run will be multiple days later than the typical midpoint this year, similar to last year’s run, he said.
“Based on our forecast, the harvest so far is probably a little bit less than you would expect of this time in July,” Shields said.
Prices have varied between $1.10 and $1.20 for sockeye, less than the average of $1.54 that Cook Inlet fishermen received last year. Competition and a strong U.S. dollar damaged salmon prices in the state last year, but commercial fishermen had hoped prices would improve after last year because of an algal bloom that killed millions of farmed salmon in Chile.
Anne Poso, the dock manager at Snug Harbor Seafoods, said the low prices have disappointed fishermen so far. The season so far has been “tepid,” despite the fact that the third week of July should be the peak of the season, she said.
“I would normally expect it to be a lot better right now,” Poso said.
Sorting fish at the Pacific Star Seafoods’ dock on Thursday, dock manager Mike Johnson said the season has looked best for setnetters fishermen so far.
“It’s been looking good for the shore-based guys right now,” Johnson said. “Not so much for the drifters ... The fish have all been down low, with the warm water.”
In the Kenai River, Fish and Game biologists have observed the sockeye salmon migrating further out into the river than they normally do, Shields said. They are still trying to understand why, but the migration pattern could contribute to the low success rates in the sportfishery and the personal use dipnet fishery on the Kenai, he said.
Because of the low success rates in the personal use dipnet fishery, Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) sent a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten’s office requesting a suspension of emergency commercial fishing openers on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
Many of his constituents complained that they had traveled hours and spent days on the river with little success while Fish and Game issued several emergency commercial fishing openers last week, according to a news release from Wielechowski’s office.
A representative from Cotten’s office said he was not currently crafting a response to the request.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].