Poor salmon runs result in low harvests, disaster request

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game counts sockeye returning to the Copper River using a sonar at Miles Lake.

Poor salmon returns across the Gulf of Alaska are putting commercial fishing catches far behind the average and prompting a request for a disaster declaration.

Commercial fishermen and fisheries managers have been puzzling so far this season as to why the sockeye salmon runs that usually keep boats in the water have been so weak. Copper River fishermen have been frequently closed this season because of poor sockeye counts at the sonar at Miles Lake. As of Wednesday, 320,145 fish had passed the sonar, below the cumulative management objective for that date of 409,931 fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s online fish counts.

Poor king salmon returns across Cook Inlet prompted closures for the Northern District set gillnet fishermen, and restrictions in the Kenai River sportfishery to no bait changes the Kenai-area setnetters other than the East Forelands’ fishing periods from regular openers to only open by emergency order after the season opening on July 9.

Across the state, overall salmon harvest is down by about half. Sockeye salmon catches are down about 64 percent and kings are down about 49 percent compared to the 2017 harvest and pinks are down about 67 percent so far versus the 2016 harvest, according to a weekly salmon catch update from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the McDowell Group. Chum salmon catch is up about 5 percent.

Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen are just getting going for the season. As of June 25, they had altogether harvested 27,426 salmon, 26,542 of which were sockeye, according to a harvest update from Fish and Game.

Sockeye salmon harvests in Bristol Bay may push the state overall harvest up, as fishermen accelerate there I the next few weeks, and pink salmon run historically accelerate in July into August.

One area is already looking for disaster relief because of the poor sockeye returns. The Bristol Bay Native Association submitted an emergency petition to the Board of Fisheries to ask Gov. Bill Walker to declare the 2018 Chignik sockeye salmon return a disaster. The five communities in the Chignik area, located on the Alaska Peninsula southwest of the Kodiak Archipelago, depend on the sockeye return for cash income and for subsistence, and the fish just aren’t there this year, according to the petition.

“Without the salmon returning they will not be able to purchase home heating fuel, electricity, gasoline, propane, basic food necessities, mortgage payments, boat expenses, and financial loan obligations to the state,” the petition states. “…The impact of the failed sockeye salmon return is beyond thecapacity of the local communities ability to sustain their economic stability and subsistence way of life and additional help is necessary.”

The historical average for the return this time of year is between 137,389 and 360,888 sockeye, according to the petition. As of Wednesday, 107,579 fish had passed the weir, compared to 267,297 on the same date in 2017, according to Fish and Game.

Fisheries managers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have suggested a link between the poor salmon returns and “the Blob,” an exceptionally warm body of water in the North Pacific that remained there for several years, according to the harvest summary from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the McDowell Group.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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