Salmon struggles extend to unprecedented restrictions at Chignik
A tough sockeye salmon commercial fishing season is shaping up in the Gulf of Alaska, from the Copper River across to Kodiak Island and back to the mainland at Chignik. And the Yukon River is seeing dismal chinook salmon returns, although the summer chum run is strong.
“I haven’t put my net in the water once,” complained Chignik purse seiner Roger Rowland on June 26. “It’s literally the worst run ever.”
Rowland commented from the fishing district on his cellphone, via teleconference in an Unalaska City Council meeting, about 300 miles to the southwest where he lives, during a break between votes.
Rowland, a longtime seiner, city councilor and boat repairman, said he was hoping for better results from the second lake in the river system. Earlier in the month, the Chignik crisis prompted an unprecedented emergency order restricting a neighboring fishery from Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten.
“Since statehood there has never been this low of an escapement of sockeye salmon at this time through the Chignk weir,” Cotten wrote on June 18.
That’s nearly 60 years ago, since Alaska became a state in 1959. ADFG tracks fish passing though the two-gated weir in the river, using video cameras, counted for 10 minutes of every hour by ADFG staff viewing indoor monitors at the remote site on the western side of the Alaska Peninsula.
Cotten’s emergency order slashed the hours for commercial fishing in neighboring Area M/South Alaska Peninsula, including Sand Point, King Cove, and False Pass, because Chignik salmon migrate through those areas, traveling northeast back to where they were born about four years earlier in freshwater.
“That’s never been done before,” said ADFG Biologist Lisa Fox in Sand Point.
Fishing periods in the South Peninsula waters were reduced to 40 hours, down from the normal 88-hour openers, as conservation measures to protect Chignik salmon.
While the Area M fleet is catching fish this year, it’s nothing like the amazing previous season.
“Last year was a pretty phenomenal year for sockeye, for everything, really,” said Fox.
In 2017, the seiners, gillnet boats and setnetters landed 1.76 million sockeye, well above the 10-year average of 1.19 million. As of June 25, the catch stood at 671,000 reds, substantially below average.
“This year’s sockeye harvest has been very low,” Fox said, although the chum salmon harvest is strong.
The sockeye harvest total increased a few days later to 877,640 on June 28 for Area M.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial harvest strategy for 2018, the Chignik River watershed is managed with an early run to Black Lake, and a late run to Chignik Lake.
The early run to Black Lake, in the interior of the peninsula, was forecast at 844,000 sockeye, or red, salmon. The harvest was projected at 448,000 reds.
The Chignik harvest strategy document, written by state fisheries biologist Dawn Wilburn, said the early run typically peaks in late June. The late run goes to Chignik Lake, closer to the ocean, with a forecasted run of about 900,000, and a projected catch of 563,000 fish.
Last year, Chignik fisherman caught a total of about 1 million sockeye, accounting for 45 percent of the total paid to salmon fishermen of $15.8 million, with 41 percent of the ex-vessel dollars paid for pink salmon. The 67 permit holders fishing in 2017 earned an average of $236,000, including kings, chums and coho.
“It’s all hypothetical, but it’s probably related to the warm ocean conditions,” Wilbur said.
Earlier this salmon season, disappointing sockeye and chinook salmon returns were reported at another Gulf of Alaska salmon fishery, Copper River, on the east side of the gulf, about 500 miles away. Sport, dipnet and commercial fishing were all closed in response. The poor returns were attributed to the “blob” that raised water temperatures several degrees between 2014 and 2016, the same phenomenon linked to an 80 percent cut in the Pacific cod commercial fishing quota in the gulf this year.
The Copper River harvest, limited to just three fishing periods in mid-May before being shut down, is the second-lowest in the past 50 years.
In Kodiak, the major river systems had met escapement goals, but commercial salmon fishermen weren’t catching very many fish despite the same amount of boats as usual, according to biologist Jeff Spalinger, who called any link to water temperatures “speculative.”
On June 27, ADFG reported a sockeye harvest of 102,000 thousand, and in a normal year the Kodiak catch would be closer to a half million.
The Yukon River is closed to commercial king salmon fishing, and subsistence times have been reduced, in a run that’s looking like the poor season of 2015.
“It looks like a weak run at this point,” said Wayne Jenkins, of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. But in a bright note, the summer chum salmon run is “very robust,” he said.
The 2015 season had the second poorest Yukon king harvest on record, and the worst catch was the year before, in 2014, according to Holly Carroll of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Emmonak.
“The return is below average, and it appears to be below the preseason forecast,” Carroll said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at [email protected]