Commercial fishing season kicks off with higher prices, slow runs

Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet have been out since late June, kicking off what’s predicted to be a fairly slow sockeye salmon season.

As of Monday, Upper Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishermen and setnetters had harvested approximately 196,797 salmon, 186,212 of which were sockeye and 2,812 of which were kings. Not all the areas are open yet — only the northern district, the Kasilof section, two districts on Cook Inlet’s west side and the central district drift gillnet fishery are open. Setnetters along Cook Inlet’s east side near Kenai and Nikiski will open July 10.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s forecast for sockeye in Upper Cook Inlet is relatively weak this year — only about 4 million fish are expected to return to the area, which includes the Kenai, Kasilof and Susitna rivers as well as a number of smaller streams. The managers still have to achieve their escapement goals in the river, the measure of which is taken at river mile 19, just downstream of the David Douthit Veterans Memorial Bridge in Soldotna.

As of Monday, 11,962 sockeye had passed the sonar in the Kenai River, less than a third of the 36,839 that had passed by the same date in 2016. The daily passage grows as the run heads toward its peak in mid-July, so it may pick up as the days go on. On the Kasilof River, the run is only slightly below its 2016 standing, with about 80,208 fish past the sonar as of Sunday compared to 86,732 on the previous year, according to Fish and Game data.

Fish and Game extended the Kasilof setnetting period Monday by two hours into the evening, targeting Kasilof sockeye to control the escapement into the river, according to an emergency order issued Monday.

Prices on the docks are variable as the season kicks off. Early in the season, sockeye are typically more valuable, and the prices decrease as the season goes on and supply increases. Processors were paying between $1.50 and $2.05 per pound for sockeye at the dock, depending on how it was treated onboard, and between $3 and $4 per pound for large kings. Pink salmon, the second-largest commercially fished species in Cook Inlet, were fetching between 10 and 20 cents per pound at the docks.

The Lower Cook Inlet fleet is out as well, primarily setnetting along Kachemak Bay’s southern shore and in part of Resurrection Bay and in Kamishak Bay. All told, with five days of fishing down, the Lower Cook Inlet fishermen have brought in approximately 71,854 salmon, 68,210 of which were sockeye salmon.

Lower Cook Inlet is expecting a high run of pink salmon this year, in accordance with the area’s odd-year high cycle of pink salmon production. Upper Cook Inlet had a large run of pinks in 2016, as it sees high runs in even years, and will likely have a smaller run this year, though pink salmon runs are not counted anywhere in Upper Cook Inlet by sonar.

Setnetters and drift gillnetters will be out again Wednesday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the Kasilof section, as authorized by an additional period in an emergency order issued Tuesday.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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