Bizarre salmon season winds down short of state projections

  • Kodiak fishermen pursue sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Buskin River in this file photo. The sockeye harvest for Kodiak was a pleasant surprise this season while many salmon fisheries around the state struggled to meet state preseason forecasts. (Photo//File/Kodiak Daily Mirror)

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that 21.2 million pinks had been caught in Kodiak in the 2020 season.

On top all the other effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a strange year for Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries.

As the fisheries are winding down, the total landings are about 17 percent behind the projections statewide. The Copper River sockeye run was a flop, as was the chum run statewide, and the silver salmon harvest was down everywhere except Kodiak and Bristol Bay. Prices were down, too, and processors had the extra expense and responsibility of keeping workers healthy in remote communities at close quarters.

Copper River’s early season sockeye openers seemed to bode ill for the state. After just a few paltry catches, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the fishery, hoping to boost escapement. The reds just never showed up. The sonar at Miles Lake stopped counting July 28 and met the minimum escapement, but without a commercial fishery. Sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet, and stalled out when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July.

Bristol Bay largely shrugged off the poor news of the early season, though, and delivered close to the same number of landings as last year: just 9 percent fewer, with about 39.2 million sockeye landed. On top of that harvest, the Egegik, Ugashik, and Naknek-Kvichak districts exceeded their sockeye escapement goals. The Naknek River blew its goal away; more than 4.1 million sockeye passed that river before July 21, the highest escapement on record, according to ADFG.

Bristol Bay is the heavyweight in the wild sockeye salmon world; more than three quarters of the sockeye harvested in the state come from there. So the prices posted there for the beginning of the season are usually an indicator for what the value of the harvest is going to be.

Usually.

“What we’ve seen when it comes to salmon prices is a general decline across the state and across all species,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist specializing in fisheries with the McDowell Group. “Because Bristol Bay is such a high value fishery, a lot of attention is paid to the base price that is posted there, and that was down about 50 percent from last year. There’s a lot of reasons for that.”

One of those reasons is because of all the costs processors had to swallow related to the pandemic. Bringing in workers, quarantining them, testing them regularly, and providing protective equipment is expensive. But on top of that, the Bristol Bay sockeye hit in a big pulse rather than being spanned out. Because of capacity, the processors generally moved toward head-and-gutting rather than more added-value products, like filleting and roe, Evridge said.

While Alaska fish are entering a more favorable market because the retail sector is recovering and some other stocks haven’t been producing, like Russian farmed fish, prices are generally lower for farmed fish, which may harm the retail prices for Alaska fish, he said. There’s also the economic pressure on consumers to consider. Overall, it paints a picture of uncertainty for Alaska seafood.

“2020 is an unusual year, and the early indicators are one of a decline in value, but we’re really going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out in terms of price adjustments made throughout this winter,” he said. “We will have a better handle on what the final price is in the spring of next year.”

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association noted strong retail sales in a press release Sept. 8, praising the fleet and industry for its pandemic prevention measures

“Grocery and seafood retailers took notice of this year’s harvest, with several new partners signing on for summertime promotions of fresh sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay,” the organization stated. “Eight retail chains containing over 1,200 individual stores hosted branded Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon promotions or promoted salmon from Bristol Bay online, with many seeing significant sales gains.”

Kodiak also saw a significantly better season than other regions. As of Sept. 3, about 21.2 million pink salmon had been harvested, more than three times the harvest in 2018. The sockeye harvest was behind the 2019 landings, but silvers were slightly ahead, with 377,000 silvers landed. The South Alaska Peninsula is doing better than last year for pink salmon, with about 4.1 million harvested, but is still tracking behind the multi-year averages.

On the other hand, Chignik experienced one of its worst seasons on record. Both the early and late sockeye runs were extremely weak, prompting closures on the commercial fishery there. Up until ADFG pulled out the weir in the Chignik River on Aug. 27, only 309,702 sockeye had been counted for the entire season, which wasn’t enough for either run to meet its escapement goal. That’s the third year in a row for the early run, and ADFG doesn’t project that any remaining fish will help the late run meet its escapement goal.

The chum run made its escapement in the Chignik Management Area made its escapement, but the pink run did not. Two years ago, the community received a federal disaster declaration for a similarly poor run and closure and is just now seeing funds distributed to cover that disaster.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/12/2020 - 6:13pm