Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial salmon fishermen are predicted to have another slow season, if the forecast proves accurate.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2017 commercial salmon fishery outlook predicts a total run of about 4 million fish to all the stream systems in Upper Cook Inlet, which includes the Kenai, Kasilof and Susitna rivers as well as a number of smaller streams. Commercial fishermen are projected to harvest about 1.7 million of that, the lowest projected harvest in the last 15 years.
It’s largely the Kenai River not living up the recent 10-year average. The river is projected to see a return of 2.2 million sockeye, about 39 percent below the recent 10-year average of 3.6 million fish. By contrast, the Susitna River is projected to see about 366,000 sockeye return, about 5 percent below the average; the Kasilof River is expected to see about 825,000 sockeye, about 16 percent below the recent average, according to the forecast.
The 2017 forecast follows a poor 2016 season, when the run came in significantly below the prediction. Total harvest by all user groups was about 3.3 million sockeye rather than the 5.3 million fish predicted, according to the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet sockeye forecast released in November.
“Overall, the 2016 sockeye salmon run was 26 percent below forecast, largely due to the below forecast Kenai sockeye salmon run,” the forecast states.
The biologists who conduct the forecast always include a margin of error — for the Kenai River run, it’s 20 percent below or above, with the 2.2 million as the point estimate. For the Kasilof, it’s a 12 percent margin of error. Commercial fisheries Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said the managers are relatively confident in the forecast models, though it’s always subject to error and is reviewed when inseason data starts to come in.
“When you run those models and if you get a big difference, (the forecaster) tends to look at the performance of a model for the last few years … and look at which of the models has performed the best,” Shields said. “You can end up using multiple models.”
By late summer 2016, it was apparent that the big days of sockeye harvests weren’t going to materialize. Commercial fishermen had only harvested 1.6 million salmon by July 19 last year, what is typically in the middle of the sockeye season. By July 26, Fish and Game dropped its estimate for the return to all of Cook Inlet by 1.8 million–1.9 million sockeye. Two age classes seemed to have had a hard time returning, the 4- and 5-year-old sockeye.
It wasn’t the only strange run. Commercial fishermen all over Alaska puzzled over the disappointingly small pink salmon returns, but many noted the exceptionally large fish. Cook Inlet’s setnetters recorded an average of 5 pounds, the largest on record, as compared to the usual 3.6 pounds.
But this year, pink salmon returns look better around the state, and sockeye runs outside Cook Inlet look rosy. Bristol Bay is expecting a run of approximately 41.4 million sockeye, about 27 percent more than the recent average, according to the 2017 Bristol Bay season forecast.
Prices look to rise as well, said Andy Wink, the seafood project manager for research firm the McDowell Group. For several years, a large harvest of sockeye salmon in Alaska has pushed down prices, especially in competition with the massive numbers of farmed salmon entering the market from places like Norway, Chile and Scotland. However, an algal bloom in Chile and widespread infections of sea lice have damage farmed salmon production, pushing up prices significantly. Processors’ backstocks of frozen sockeye are down, and with demand up but supply lower, the prices are likely to rise, Wink said.
“We’ve got strong headwinds, but it hasn’t all been pulling against us,” he said. “Because, for the last 10 years, farmed salmon production has grown about 5 percent. Last year, they estimated production down 7 percent. That’s certainly a very large decline when you’re talking about 4.5 billion pounds of fish. That’s a lot of missing supply. That’s been helpful.”
Processors have been hit hard by the extremely strong U.S. dollar. A valuable U.S. currency is bad for Alaska’s seafood market — when other currencies are worth significantly less than the dollar, it typically pushes prices down. Cook Inlet lost a major processor in spring 2016 when Great Pacific Seafoods filed for bankruptcy, closing its Kenai, Anchorage and Whittier plants.
However, with the farmed market down and demand higher, signs look good for improved prices, Wink said.
“This year it’s going to be kind of interesting how this year plays out,” he said. “I suspect there’s a lot of buyers out there who would like to reproduce what they’ve done in the last several years, but there’s probably not going to be as much going around this year.”
Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen also have some new regulations to watch for. The Board of Fisheries passed several proposals loosening regulations on East Side setnetters, including exempting the East Forelands statistical area from the paired restrictions system, which pairs setnet openings with Kenai River late-run king salmon escapements, and pushing back the effective date for the one-percent rule. Because the king salmon forecast predicts a run of 33,600 large king salmon, which is higher than the sustainable escapement goal of 13,500–27,000 large king salmon, the season can start of normally and be managed for inseason abundance, according to the outlook.
The board also opened up the use of a nearshore fishery to help control Kasilof River sockeye salmon escapement and keep the managers from having to open the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, a terminal fishery in the mouth of the Kasilof River that has been widely criticized by fishermen. When authorized, setnetters can operate their full complement of gear within 600 feet of shore, which allows them to stay on their sites and has shown promising results for controlling escapement without catching too many king salmon, Shields said.
“It puts commercial fishermen more in their regular area,” he said. “It lets people fish from their regular fish sites rather than getting hundreds of people to move from their regular fish sites. That change the board made, probably of all the changes for setnetting, has potentially the largest impact.”
Drift gillnetters can stack now stack multiple CFEC permits and have the potential to get one inlet-wide period in July if the projected run to the Kenai River is between 2.3 million sockeye and 4.6 million sockeye. Though the current projected run is less than 2.3 million, Shields noted that it would only take a relatively small variation to push the run into that management tier, so the managers may have the option to open up one inlet-wide period. Otherwise, the drifters are restricted to fishing in Drift Gillnet Area 1, a large area that stretches across the inlet between the south side of Kalgin Island and the Anchor Point Light.
“If the forecast is correct, the change to the drift plan won’t come into play this year,” he said. “If the forecast is just a little off, that’s something the department will have at their discretion to use.”