Some bright spots for high-value salmon, halibut in 2021

  • High-value halibut is still declining in the North Pacific, but the 2020 surveys revealed just a 1 percent drop in the stock as the International Pacific Halibut Commission prepares to set harvest quotas for 2021 in January at its annual meeting. (Photo/Kelly Jordan Photography/Sitka Salmon Shares)

Going into 2021, salmon fishermen have some unanswered questions and at least a few promising forecasts to look forward to.

Following the trend of the last several years, the salmon forecast for the 2021 salmon season in Bristol Bay looks positive. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a total return of about 51 million sockeye salmon, with an inshore run of about 50 million. That’s about 6 percent better than the average for the last decade and 45 percent greater than the long-term average.

If the forecast delivers, that would mean approximately 37.37 million sockeye available for commercial harvest, with about 1 million of those available for harvest in the South Peninsula fisheries and the rest in the various terminal fisheries around the Bay.

For about the last two decades, Fish and Game’s forecasts for Bristol Bay have generally been conservative; the runs since 2001 have, on average, outperformed the forecasts by 11 percent, according to the 2021 forecast.

The forecasts for various rivers in the region vary from Alagnak, which is forecast to be down 32 percent in 2021, to the Igushik, which is forecast to be up 13 percent.

“Overforecasting returns to some rivers while underforecasting returns to other rivers means that the overall Bristol Bay forecast is often more accurate than the forecast to any individual river,” according to ADFG.

Entering an odd numbered year might mean better luck for pink salmon returns as well. Historically, odd-numbered years deliver higher overall catches of pink salmon statewide.

Southeast appears to be on that list as well, though with some caveats. ADFG estimates a return of approximately 28 million pinks, which is better than the average over all years but low for odd-year returns in the region. Salmon forecasts for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have not yet been published.

Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is forecasting approximately 4.1 million chums to return in 2021, which would be significantly better than the realized return of 2.6 million chums in 2020.

The association is also forecasting a return of approximately 4.4 million cohos, which would also be significantly greater than the 2020 return of about 2.7 million.

For the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, the predicted summer chum return is about 3 million; Douglas Island Pink and Chum is forecasting about 1 million to return, with about 611,000 of that available for common property harvest.

2020 proved a difficult year for many salmon harvesters, with underperforming forecasts in many regions and unpredictable markets leading to reduced prices. However, retail demand for wild sockeye stayed strong, according to seafood marketer TradeX, and low stocks due to underperforming fisheries may mean an increase in price due to constrained supply in 2021.

Restaurant and food service outlet closures pushed down prices for farmed salmon and directed it more toward retail outlets, where it competed with wild salmon. Prices stabilized over subsequent months, but an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country this fall led to more restaurant and food service closures, putting more downward pressure on wild salmon prices, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Halibut outlook

Stock numbers in the Pacific halibut fishery are overall still declining, but there are individual bright spots in some regions.

The results from the 2020 fishery-independent setline survey showed a coast-wide decline of about 1 percent, the fourth year of declines, according to survey results presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

The trends individually varied from region to region, though, from an 8 percent decline in Region 2, which covers Southeast Alaska and British Columbia to a 1 percent increase in Region 3, which includes the Gulf of Alaska. Region 4 was not directly sampled in 2020 but projected to increase as well. The increase in Region 3 bucks a declining trend documented since about 2004.

Pacific halibut catches and bycatch were down statewide in 2020, according to an analysis from the IPHC for the end of 2020. Total landings, including research, were down 6 percent from 2019, and non-directed discard mortality — also called bycatch — was down 23 percent. Recreational mortality was down 15 percent from 2019 as well.

Unlike salmon, pollock and other seafood species that are exported, Pacific halibut is largely consumed domestically in the United States. That made harvesters in that fishery ineligible for tariff assistance when the federal administration offered some relief funds for fishermen affected by the ongoing trade conflict with China. However, halibut fishermen are eligible for pandemic-related aid, including in the latest round passed by Congress this week.

The North Pacific Fishery Management council recommended a set of management measures depending on the final catch limits for the charter fishery in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska as well.

For the Gulf of Alaska, officially known as Area 3A, allocations generally include a daily limit of two halibut, with no annual limit per charter angler, Wednesday closures, one trip per charter vessel per day and one trip per permit per day.

In Southeast Alaska, officially known as Area 2C, the management measures include a one-fish daily bag limit and a reverse slot limit, with sizes dependent on the adjusted catch limit. The measures also apply a 35 percent reduction in projected removals called a COVID Impact Buffer, as the pandemic has heavily affected the charter industry in Southeast in 2020.

The IPHC meets in January to set catch limits for 2021. The meeting will be held online starting Jan. 25.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/23/2020 - 9:15am