Managers statewide mystified by poor production of pink salmon

Weather patterns contributed to a screwy sockeye run in 2015, and this year the same is happening to pinks, the second-largest salmon harvest in Alaska.

In 2016, commercial fishermen have only harvested 8 million pinks as of Aug. 15 in Prince William Sound, the state’s largest pink run. Only one-third are hatchery fish, a marked turn from last years’ massive pink haul of 96 million in the Sound, a 20-year record-breaker over 93 million pinks in 2003. Of these, 80 percent were hatchery fish.

Southeast Alaska’s run is doing as badly with only 13.4 million harvested, less than half the already-substandard forecast of 34 million fish.

Dan Gray, the area management biologist for Southeast Alaska’s commercial fisheries, said he and fishermen both are stumped as to the poor run’s nature, but seem to think the warm Gulf of Alaska “blob” of 2015, which raised surface temperatures 2 degrees Celsius, has some impact.

“Maybe it wasn’t the best thing for high sea survival,” he said.

Hope for a midseason pickup in returns is dim. The Southeast pink salmon run midpoint is typically the first week of August. Gray has noted low male-to-female sex ratios throughout the run.

“They generally indicate an early and possibly compressed run timing,” he said. “We’re kind of seeing that’s coming to pass. This run looks like it could just fall off the table here quite soon.”

Causes might be unclear, but Gray is certain of one thing: weirdness.

“The fact this seems to be early and compressed is just a head scratcher for everybody,” he said. “Maybe it shouldn’t be, because we’ve seen such anomalies in the last couple years, with Bristol Bay being two weeks late (in 2015). If that thing was ever two days off the average peak it was big news. We’re seeing some historical really weird stuff. I ask around, ‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’ Across the board, the answer is ‘no.’ This is just historically odd.”

Charles Russell, the area management biologist for ADFG’s Cordova office, echoed Gray.

“You used to be able to set your clock to a lot of things,” said Russel. “Now every year there seems to be a new variable introduced.”

Like last year, Prince William Sound fishermen have made deliveries of species found in waters further south like sunfish and chub mackerel. Nobody has reported a delivery of the latter since 1932.

Russel noted other oddities as well. Like in Southeast, the Prince William Sound run seems to be 7 to 10 days early and slightly compressed.

“Usually, you’ll start seeing jumpers early in the season, indicators that the fish are coming in,” he said. “This year we had very few jumpers in the Sound. The fish were holding deep because the water was warmer, swimming off shore. We had gorgeous weather here. There wasn’t any rain, so they weren’t going up the streams. The water was warm, and there was a lack of water.”

Like Gray, Russell said the blob could be a potential culprit, but doesn’t rule out other unknown factors.

“From what I can gather, something knocked them down early,” said Russell. “As to what that variable is, it could’ve been ocean temperature or food variables, something that affected the stock across the board.”

Hatcheries are feeling the squeeze of bad returns. The Valdez Fisheries Development Association predicted a catch of 17 million fish, but Russell said 8 million is more likely.

The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. expected 20 million in total, and up to 6 million by Aug. 11. By that date, however, fishermen only caught 1.2 million. Russell said the drop in hatchery production shouldn’t raise eyebrows. Wild runs and hatchery runs will vary in production from year to year.

“It’s not that there’s anything up with hatchery returns in the Sound,” said Russell. “All these places are seeing a decline in abundance of pink salmon.”

In Kodiak, the state’s third largest pink run, “things are even crazier,” said ADFG management biologist James Jackson.

Last year, the commercial fleet harvested 33 million fish, an enormous run by Kodiak’s standards. This year, Jackson said a 4 million harvest is rather optimistic, the worst return Jackson has seen since the 1970s. Like Southeast and Prince William Sound, the run was early, to boot.

“It’s a phenomenal shift,” said Jackson. “Probably the most frightening thing is not only is this run weak but it looks like it peaked already. Usually right now we’re about 60 percent of our run timing. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re around 80 percent of our run timing right now.”

Hatcheries will likely not meet their cost recovery harvest, he said, and fishermen on Kodiak will deal with a rare island-wide weeklong closure.

A bright but no less odd spot arises in above average pink salmon sizes statewide.

“We are seeing the largest pinks we’ve ever seen here,” said Jackson. “Our average weight for pink salmon now is five, five and half pounds. Normal is three and half pounds. These guys are almost twice the size they usually are. Fishermen are bringing in 10-pound pink salmon. There’s a guy who brought in a 14-pound pink salmon. They’re enormous.”

Jackson had a detailed explanation for the poor production. Weather patterns and ocean temperatures combine for hostile waters for pink salmon fry.

“We’ve got ocean temperatures we’ve never seen,” said Jackson. “We’ve got near shore conditions too. Kodiak hasn’t really had a winter in three years. Kodiak has these really deep inner bays, almost like fjords.

“We usually get a lot of snowmelt, so you have a lot of abundant fresh water. We haven’t been getting a lot of the snow lately, so a lot of those inner bays have been a lot warmer than we usually see. You have less productive water. Pink fry…if they come out early because there was no winter…those fish have to get to a certain size before they go offshore and start feeding. Those in shore conditions are really important.”

The environmental factors carry over from last year, when Kodiak experienced a glut of sea bird and whale mortalities. The irregularities in whether and marine survival, he said, lead to more questions and few answers.

“We’ve had the same pink salmon fishing schedule for four years. It’s a beautiful bell curve,” he said. “Our effort has been consistent for the last 20, 25 years. Now, everything is different. Last year’s run was huge around Kodiak. That was a late run. It was just so huge that we thought it was early. When you look at the peak, it was well past what we usually have. In 2014, the run was weak and early, which you don’t usually see. These runs are usually very consistent.”

Gone are the days when managers could tell the day of the week by the fish.

“It’s a strange year,” he said. “It’s one for the books.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

08/17/2016 - 11:52am