Salmon fisheries turn to chums, pinks as sockeye runs wind down

While the sockeye fisheries in Southcentral and Western Alaska are tapering off after seasons of varying success, the chum fishery statewide is turning out to be pretty dismal.

Statewide, chum harvest is actually ahead of 2020’s final catch, almost entirely because of landings in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula. However, the total volume is still down; as of July 17, the harvest of about 4.4 million fish was about half of the typical volume at that time, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Across Southeast, through July 17, chum harvest was 35 percent less than what it was in 2020. The Southeast troll fishery is seeing both fewer fish and smaller ones in the chum fishery. As of July 23, the trollers had landed 6,900 chums, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with an average weight of 6.4 pounds per fish, about 2.7 pounds less than the recent 5-year average and about 1.4 smaller than last year’s average weight.

“Hatchery produced chum salmon runs throughout Southeast have been variable to date, but harvests have generally been below average as forecasted,” managers wrote in the weekly update July 23.

The Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which tracks in-season returns of its summer chum, is showing that the actual return is tracking better than the lower end of its forecast. Up until statistical week 28, the run was tracking less than the forecast, but moved up by week 29 to between the lower and mid-ranges of the forecast.

Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, however, is reporting poor returns at its sites.

“Returns of summer chum to NSRAA remote release sites through stat week 29 continues to be poor and all indications to date are that we will be at or well below the low range of our preseason summer chum forecast,” the association wrote in its update on July 19.

In Prince William Sound, 2.4 million chums have been harvested as of July 25. Harvest is better than last year, which ended at about 1.2 million chums.

Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group, said chum salmon are marketed for both roe and fillets, with the U.S. being an important market for fillets while the roe is often consumed in Asia. Alaskans may think primarily of sockeye and kings in the salmon market, but chum and pink usually provide large amounts of product to serve the markets.

“One way to think about it is just volume,” he said. “In certain markets you need a lot of volume, and pink and chum are where we have the volume. Pink and keta are both affordable ways to provide really high-quality protein to people who aren’t tracking salmon closely.”

Salmon fisheries are beginning to turn toward pinks. Prince William Sound fishermen have so far landed 22.6 million of them, which are a mixture of hatchery stocks and wild stocks. It’s a surprise, given that these fish would have been born in 2019, when a drought and record-breaking temperatures seared Prince William Sound.

“Wild stocks are returning stronger than anticipated given the uncertainty about spawning success from the 2019 parent year that was assumed to be negatively impacted by drought conditions,” managers wrote in the weekly update.

The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation is forecasting about 6.6 million pinks to return to the Wally Noerenberg Hatchery this year. They are just starting to show up and are not yet in enough numbers to report, according to the hatchery organization.

Cost recovery harvest began on July 26 at the Armin F. Koernig hatchery, which is expecting 5 million pinks to return, and planned to start on July 27 at the Cannery Creek hatchery, which is forecasting 6 million pinks to return.

Pink season is still just getting going elsewhere. Southeast has harvested about 3 million total so far, while Kodiak has harvested about 1.2 million and the Alaska Peninsula has harvested about 4.5 million. The Alaska Peninsula is ahead of its recent-year averages, while Kodiak was reportedly slightly behind.

Cook Inlet is starting to see some pink harvests mixed in among sockeye, but reds are still the main harvest. Last week saw the Upper Cook Inlet East Side setnetters closed entirely due to poor king salmon returns to the Kenai River, leaving the drift fleet and West Side setnetters as the only commercial harvesters in the upper Inlet.

The Lower Cook Inlet fleet is primarily harvesting hatchery pink salmon bound for Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s two hatcheries on Kachemak Bay, and so far have landed about 139,000 pinks.

Bristol Bay is mopping up the last of its sockeye harvests for the season, but all preseason estimates have shown that this season set a new record at just shy of 40 million sockeye harvested and a total estimated run of 64.2 million.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/27/2021 - 7:23pm