Year in Review: A dismal year for salmon and halibut in the Gulf, Bristol Bay booms, battles over hatcheries
This summer was a disappointment for salmon fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, both in the timing and in the numbers.
Salmon fishermen from Kodiak to Southeast saw poor harvests and poor profits this year due to unexpectedly small runs of sockeye, king and pink salmon. Copper River fishermen rang the first alarm bells when unprecedentedly small sockeye catches were coming into the docks. In response to escapement concerns, managers shut down the fishery in June for a string of days.
The fishery reopened in mid-July when the number of sockeye passing the sonar at Miles Lake was strong enough to merit it, and fishermen managed to scrape together enough of a harvest by the end of the season to avoid complete disaster.
Not so for Chignik over on the Alaska Peninsula. The run to the Chignik River and Chignik Lagoon never really materialized, and for the first time, neighboring fisheries had to be restricted to control escapement to Chignik. The fishery only opened for a handful of hours, and those hours brought dismal fishing success.
The preliminary harvest estimate for the area came to 128 fish, less than 1/10,000 of 1 percent of the average harvest. Before the summer was even out, the Board of Fisheries and Gov. Bill Walker had declared disasters for the fishery on Aug. 23, triggering state relief efforts for the area to help offset the losses.
In Cook Inlet, too, the sockeye run baffled and frustrated all user groups. Poor sockeye returns to the Kenai River up through early July led to days of closures in the commercial fishery, restrictions and eventual closures in the sportfishery and the early closure of the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery.
Then, for only the second time since the sonar was put in place, more than half of the Kenai River’s sockeye run came in after Aug. 1. Fishery management plans backfired because they were timed to dates, and though the run did eventually end the season within the escapement goal, commercial fishermen particularly were frustrated by the restrictions hampering their ability to harvest silver, pink and chum salmon still returning to the inlet.
The Upper Cook Inlet drift fleet is seeking support for a disaster declaration as well.
Though there’s no definitive data supporting it, fisheries managers and fishermen have pointed to the warm water anomaly in the North Pacific Ocean from 2015–17, nicknamed “the Blob,” as a possible factor in the poor sockeye and king salmon returns.
No. 2: Records smashed in Bristol Bay, Norton Sound
While their Gulf of Alaska colleagues nursed their hurting wallets, Bristol Bay and Norton Sound salmon fishermen were busy hauling in heavy net after heavy net, loaded down with historic high numbers of sockeye and pink salmon.
Bristol Bay marked a total inshore run of 62.3 million sockeye, the largest run since 1893 and 69 percent more than the recent 20-year average. The total harvest of 41.3 million was the second highest on record, and the ex-vessel value of $281 million was more than 242 percent above the preseason forecasted value, in part due to much higher-than-usual prices.
The only thing some Bristol Bay runs had in common with the Gulf of Alaska runs was that they were later than usual — about 10 days later, in some cases. That delay helped the processors keep up with such a high harvest.
Farther north, Norton Sound area fishermen also smashed their harvest and exvessel value records. The total value of $4 million knocked out the previous record of $3.5 million, and the 260,000 silver salmon harvest set a new record. A total of 155 permits were fished in 2018 as well, up from a low of 12 in 2002 and the highest number since 1987.
Unlike elsewhere in Alaska, the Nome River saw a massive run of pink salmon — 3.2 million, about double the previous record of 1.6 million. There isn’t much of a market for pink salmon there yet, though, so many of them weren’t harvested.
No. 3: Hatchery battles at the Board of Fisheries
Amid concerns about the sustainability of salmon runs across the Gulf of Alaska, salmon hatcheries had to repeatedly defend themselves before the Board of Fisheries as a group of stakeholders and sportfishing groups sought to limit their operations.
The battles began in May, when a group of sportfishing groups led by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association sought to block a pink salmon egg take increase by the Valdez Development Fishery Association, citing straying concerns from Prince William Sound pink salmon into Lower Cook Inlet streams and carrying capacity in the Gulf of Alaska.
The Board of Fisheries turned down a request for an emergency petition relating to the hatcheries, and again shot it down in July, saying it didn’t meet the criteria for an emergency petition.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association brought it back again at the board’s October work session, where the board heard hours of presentations from Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff about the function of hatcheries and ultimately decided not to act on the proposal but would continue to meet on hatcheries in the future.
No. 4: Halibut hardships, falling quotas and prices
Unable to agree on how to cut harvest, the International Pacific Halibut Commission ended its January meeting with no joint decision on quotas for the U.S. and Canadian halibut fisheries. Each country independently set its limits, with the caveat that they could not be higher than the previous year’s quota.
The argument arose after a stock status report showed a precipitous decline in harvestable biomass in North Pacific Ocean halibut stocks, recommending that quotas be cut to preserve halibut stocks in the future from becoming overfished. That decline, more than 20 percent, comes after years of declining size and abundance of halibut.
The stock status report for 2018, released at the commission’s interim meeting in December, showed yet another decline of about 7.5 percent across the entire survey area. The commission is due to meet in January in Vancouver to resume the discussion about what to do about halibut harvests.
Halibut fishermen are feeling the pinch, both in volume in price. At the beginning of the season, fishermen were getting about $4.50–$5.50 per pound at the dock, down from about $7 at the beginning of the 2017 season.
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute connected the lower prices to existing supply, an increase of supply from Atlantic halibut fisheries and price fatigue among consumers. Most of Alaska’s Pacific halibut is consumed domestically, with some consumed in Canada, Europe and Southeast Asia as well.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].