Sockeye harvest breaks all-time top 5; pinks picking up
The 2019 salmon season has seen plenty of fish return to the state, but far from evenly across regions.
As of Sept. 10, commercial fishermen across Alaska have landed 198.4 million salmon of all five species, about 8 percent less than the preseason forecast of 213.2 million. Most of that shortfall is in pink and chum salmon, which haven’t delivered on their forecasts so far, but a surplus of sockeye salmon helped make up for some of that gap.
Statewide, commercial fishermen have landed more than 55.1 million sockeye, about 9 percent more than last year and 5 million more than the preseason forecast.
The boom in sockeye salmon mostly landed in Bristol Bay, the state’s largest sockeye fishery. Commercial fishermen there landed about 43.2 million sockeye by the end of their season, eclipsing last year’s harvest of 41.2 million.
The total sockeye run across the state is the largest since 1995 and the fourth-strongest season since 1975, according to a weekly harvest update from the McDowell Group and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Sockeye are still coming in, though; commercial fishermen in Kodiak landed 130,000 last week, according to the update. The sockeye harvest there clocked in at just more than 2 million fish as of Sept. 10, which is slightly less than the preseason forecast for the area.
Kodiak has some of the latest sockeye runs in the state, and weaker runs tend to come in later than stronger runs, said area management biologist James Jackson. But like other areas of the state, Kodiak has seen sockeye salmon arrive near their terminal streams and hold in the salt water, waiting to enter the streams.
“We’ve had sockeye holding in the Karluk Lagoon for what seems like a month now,” he said.
The sockeye run hasn’t been exceptional, but the pink salmon run has done well in Kodiak this year. Pinks are the bread and butter for salmon fishermen there, and this year has brought more than 32.5 million of them so far. That’s significantly better than the total forecast harvest of 27 million pinks for 2019, and it showed up early, Jackson said.
“The pink run mostly shows up in July and August, and we usually have a very small September component,” he said. “We had the fourth-largest July harvest of pinks, and the fourth-largest overall harvest of pinks, and we’re on track to have the largest September harvest ever.”
The run this year never seemed to have a discernable peak, though, he said; the fish showed up early and just kept showing up. A warm summer with record-low precipitation all across the Gulf of Alaska coast, though, made escapement a little tricky for salmon, as creeks were warm and water was low. Kodiak is on track to have high escapements for pinks, Jackson said, though there will likely be some pre-spawning mortality, in part related to low water and limited oxygen.
Pink salmon in other areas were slow to return early on. At the end of July, the statewide cumulative harvest was about 20 percent behind the previous odd-year harvest; as of Sept. 10, it’s only about 8 percent behind. Most of that upswing in harvest has come from Kodiak and Prince William Sound, where fishermen have harvested 31.5 million pink salmon since Aug. 8, according to ADFG’s weekly summary.
“Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation wild stock pink salmon run entry was delayed this year, likely due to the abnormally warm weather and drought conditions in Prince William Sound,” the summary states.
The low water in many creeks and warm temperatures for the majority of the summer reportedly led to many pink salmon holding offshore in Prince William Sound, delaying fisheries. The lack of precipitation in normally rainsoaked Cordova also led to a water shortage, which was compounded by the increased need at processing plants as the pink salmon season ramped up.
Rain and cooler temperatures arrived across much of the Gulf coast on Labor Day weekend, bringing relief to many of the state’s parched communities.
Chignik, which initially looked to be having a second summer of disastrously low sockeye returns, swung back into sockeye fishing in recent weeks as well. As of Sept. 10, 614,000 sockeye had been harvested in the Chignik Management Area, and though overall season harvest is less than than average, daily harvest is better than average for this time of year, according to ADFG’s weekly update.
Participation is lower, though, in part due to fishermen heading elsewhere early in the season as the run failed to materialize.
September is usually when commercial fishermen transition away from sockeye and pink salmon to coho. However, this year has presented slower returns of coho in general so far.
Harvest in Prince William Sound and parts of Southeast are reportedly less than average. Statewide, fishermen have landed just more than 3 million coho, about 11 percent behind last year’s harvest. Jackson said Kodiak may see a better-than-average coho run as well, but harvest may be limited by participation. The fleet isn’t as motivated to fish for silvers if the price isn’t high enough, he said.
Low water in some areas has challenged coho the same way it challenged other species of salmon. In the Mat-Su Valley, sportfishing managers closed the Little Susitna and the Deshka rivers to coho fishing effective Aug. 19 until Sept. 30 out of concern for the low numbers of coho entering the river, citing low water levels in the upper parts of the rivers.
“The story of coho for 2019 is one of slower production,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist focusing on fisheries with the McDowell Group.
Preliminary production numbers for coho show that harvest slowed down to about 250,000 fish last week, with the five-year average being double that. But compared to other species of salmon in Alaska, coho are not a particularly high-profile species like sockeye and king salmon, Evridge said.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].