Alaska’s salmon have been much fewer and significantly later this year.
From Southeast Alaska to Kodiak, fishermen have been wringing their hands all season as the king, sockeye, chum and now pink salmon have failed to show up in the numbers forecast by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In Cook Inlet, a weak king salmon run led to restrictions on both the early and late runs of Kenai River kings, dinging both the sportfishing and commercial fishing industries. Even the normally plentiful Kenai River sockeye run started showing signs of weakness, leading to a complete closure for sockeye fishing from Aug. 4–23.
In the past, the peak of the Kenai River sockeye salmon run has arrived in July, with major pulses of more than 70,000 fish in a day. This year, the bulk of the run has arrived in August, making the run about 9 days later than normal average run timing.
That number of fish arriving after Aug. 1 is unprecedented, said Forrest Bowers, the deputy director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries.
“That was unusual, and we took that step because we had met the (Kenai River) inriver goal for late-run sockeye,” he said. “Over half of the sonar passage that occurred in August, that’s very unusual, almost unprecedented. We’re meeting all of the established goals that we have for coho — in the Deshka, Jim Creek, Fish Creek — and so the department made the decision to expand the drift gillnet fishery into Area 1 to allow the opportunity to harvest those additional sockeye.”
Online sonar records show that in 2006, the sonar had counted 897,978 sockeye by July 31, jumping to over 2 million by Aug. 31. As of Tuesday, 979,349 sockeye had passed the sonar this season, with more half of that number arriving since Aug. 1.
Commercial set gillnet fishermen on the east side of Cook Inlet finish their season on Aug. 15. Drift gillnet fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet shift largely to the west side of Cook Inlet after Aug. 15, focusing on silver and pink salmon returning to the streams on the west side. However, because of the late arrival of the sockeye to the Kenai, commercial fishing managers opened drifting in Drift Gillnet Area 1 — a more central area of the inlet between Kalgin Island the Anchor Point Light — for 12 hours on Thursday.
The sockeye harvest was small, though — of the 1,579 salmon harvested, 242 were sockeye. The rest were a mixture of silvers, pinks and chums, with 1,308 silvers, 25 pinks and 4 chums, according to Fish and Game’s online harvest records. Effort has tapered off with the season as well, with fewer boats heading out for the openings in Upper Cook Inlet.
The abundance data the department has to work with on sockeye is fairly limited in August — the offshore test fishery in Anchor Point finishes its season July 31, and by the time the fish hit the sonar, they’re past the commercial fishery. Most of the management plans for Upper Cook Inlet are fairly prescriptive, based largely on dates and keyed into a sockeye fishery that peaks in July, Bowers said.
“When we’re seeing these exceptionally large sonar numbers (in August), we’re wondering, ‘What’s out in the inlet?’” he said.
Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen had a tough year. Many say they’re frustrated with management decisions that result in fish going unharvested. Commercial fisherman and United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Dave Martin said he doesn’t remember a worse year. The association has long argued that Fish and Game’s escapement goals are set too high and that they allow too many salmon, particularly pinks and silvers, to enter the rivers and damage the returns in the future.
“This is the fourth year in a row the rivers have been plugged with fish and the fishermen have gone hungry,” Martin said.
The total seasonal harvest is significantly below the forecast for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen — as of Thursday, the harvest stood at approximately 1.3 million salmon, 812,564 of which were sockeye. That’s less than half the forecasted harvest of 1.9 million sockeye that Fish and Game projected in November.
Fish and Game and other researchers are linking the poor salmon survival to warm water in the Gulf of Alaska in 2015, when the present year’s spawners outmigrated into the ocean. Some research has shown that warmer water changes the availability of food sources that young salmon feed on, making it harder for them to survive upon reaching the marine environment.
Though fishermen have grown used to unpredictable or weak king salmon harvests and experienced a disastrously poor pink salmon run in 2016, sockeye are usually a dependably plentiful species. Copper River commercial fishermen caught about 30 percent fewer sockeye than the 2018 forecast and about 10 percent fewer than last year; Kodiak commercial fishermen caught about 62 percent fewer.
Chignik had only one brief opening that produced so few fish that stakeholders in the district petitioned the Board of Fisheries for a disaster declaration, which Gov. Bill Walker granted Thursday.
Statewide, the salmon harvest is down about 31 percent. The pink salmon harvest is down about 30 percent, though Fish and Game was expecting to be a relatively poor year because of the low return in 2016 producing fewer offspring, Bowers said. However, in 2016, fishermen harvested 38 million pinks, and so far this year they’ve only harvested between 34.5 million as of Tuesday.
“We were projecting a harvest of about 69 million (pinks) this year,” Bowers said.
The downturn is not uniform across the state: 2018 has been a great year for Bristol Bay fishermen. The area broke harvest records, and with downturns elsewhere, the prices have been higher than some other years. The numbers from Bristol Bay buoy the total numbers — of the 48.9 million sockeye harvested statewide, 41.8 million were in Bristol Bay. Another 3.3 million were harvested in the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands, leaving only about 3 million in harvest between Kodiak, Chignik, Prince William Sound, Southeast and Cook Inlet.
Bowers noted in a preliminary season summary released Thursday that it’s important to keep harvests in perspective. Last year was a recordbreaking harvest year, with the three largest commercial salmon harvests on record between 2013 and 2017. Harvests between 100 million and 150 million fish were more common in the 1970s.
Final harvest numbers are expected to be available in mid-October.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.