Prince William Sound pinks push second-largest salmon haul in 20 years

  • By DJ SUMMERS
  • Monday, September 7, 2015 10:52pm
  • News

There’s plenty of fish in the sea and at Alaska processors, but discrepancies, soft prices, and small fish shadow the big numbers while fishermen switch to crab gear for the fall.

Statewide, the combined commercial salmon harvest has exceeded the harvest projections and all but one harvest since 1994, with fish still trickling in at the tail end of the season.

Bristol Bay sockeye led in value with an immense but oddly timed run of sub-average-sized fish, while a bumper pink salmon harvest in the Prince William Sound matched exactly an inexplicable lag of Southeast pink salmon runs. Meanwhile, the international salmon market looks hostile to exports as the U.S. dollar’s relative strength competes with foreign import bans and farmed fish to create downward pressure for Alaska processors.

Statewide, the commercial salmon harvest of all species is just less than 245 million fish, as of Aug. 28, greater than the 2015 harvest projection of 220 million and the 2005-14 average of 179 million fish.

This year’s harvest is the second highest since 1994, following only 2013, when the harvest was a record 273 million fish.

The most valuable of the fisheries, Bristol Bay, had a bizarrely late run of more than 58 million sockeye salmon, which ranks second largest in the last 20 years and 70 percent greater than the same period average of 34.5 million.

The commercial harvest also set a runner-up record. By the season’s July 4 midpoint, biologists saw no sign the harvest would reach close to 37.6 million forecast, only to see a record rally that put the total harvest near 36.7 million, which is second only to 2014 in the last 20 years.

The overall value of the fish, however, is less hopeful, at an estimated $94.8 million, which is 15 percent less than the 20-year average of $111 million. Fishermen reported a base ex-vessel price of 50 cents per pound, which is less than half last year’s price of $1.20 per pound. Even with rumors that the price will be adjusted to 75 cents per pound later in the year, the price will come below average.

Wholesale prices for processors also look soft. Undercurrent News reported that wholesale prices for processors are down 20 percent to 25 percent from last year.

Further, the numbers of fish don’t equate to large overall poundage. Bristol Bay also maintained a below average size, according to commercial fishery biologist Tim Sands.

The average baywide sockeye weight was 5.12 pounds, smaller than the historical average and the 2014 average of 5.92 pounds. The rumored wholesale value of these smaller fish, which this year represent 50 percent of Bristol Bay’s catch, is $2.25 per pound, opposed to the $3.50 to $6 per pound larger fish can draw due to the marketability six-ounce fillets.

Meanwhile, the global sockeye market remains depressed, with a strong U.S. dollar battling against Norwegian farmed fish in the wake of Russian seafood import sanctions.

Higher in volume but lower in value, Alaska’s pink salmon run came in above forecast and larger than average in size.

The pink salmon harvest has doubled the forecast in Prince William Sound; 96 million pink salmon have been harvested, breaking the previous 20-year record of 93 million in 2003.

The large returns point to a lack of harmful environmental factors for wild pink salmon. Fish and Game biologist Thomas Sheridan said excellent returns for wild stock coupled with an unusually productive year for hatchery fish to make the 2015 harvest as high as it is.

“Right now we have at least 19.5 million wild stock fish that contributed to harvest,” Sheridan said. “That would break a record set in 2013.”

The 2013 harvest saw 17.4 million wild stock pink salmon, a record for the mainly hatchery-produced Prince William Sound pink salmon fishery. Sheridan said this establishes a pattern in the last half-decade of good wild stock production.

Word in the sound says fishermen are getting about 20 cents per pound for their pinks, less than the typical 30 cents. With the increased volume comes increased weight; according to Fish and Game data, the average weight for a Prince William Sound pink salmon between 1997 and 2014 was 3.4 pounds. This year, the average weight per fish was 3.48 pounds, which exceeds the average 2013 weight by 0.7 pounds.

All told, the value of Prince William Sound pink salmon could be as high as $66.8 million, which is shy of the $106 million the fishery made in 2013 when high volume coincided with an ex-vessel price of 40 cents per pound.

In Southeast Alaska, however, the pink salmon harvest has fallen well short of both the forecast and the five-year average for this point in the season.

Fish and Game forecast 58 million pinks for Southeast seiners, but as of Sept. 2, they have only harvested 31.4 million.

This falls short of both the most recent 10-year average of 41 million, but matches the long-term average of 31 million.

Commercial fisheries biologist Dan Gray said there had been hopes the run was simply late like Bristol Bay, but the season midpoint of Aug. 8 has come and gone without any signs of a rebound. Aerial surveys and timing reports show the pink run is tapering off, which is strange considering Southeast pinks share the same water with the strong Prince William Sound fish.

“We’re all kind of scratching our heads about that,” said Gray. “They all share the same Gulf of Alaska. The Southeast runs are just not doing as well.”

Typically, the two are in closer synch. In 2013, Southeast Alaska closely matched Prince William Sound; Southeast harvest 89 million pinks, while Prince William Sound harvested 91 million.

Like Prince William Sound’s pinks, Southeast’s fish are coming in a half-pound larger than usual, according to Gray, who estimates the average weight at 3.3 pounds. This year, the average is closer to 3.7 pounds.

Gray said there are no theories as to why Southeast’s pinks came in such low numbers. Fish and Game hasn’t made any connection to the warm blob of water in the Gulf of Alaska. With the harvest matching the long-term average, Gray said it’s simply an off year for the forecast.

“I’d like to make this into something unusual, but it just isn’t,” said Gray.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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