June 14, 2018

By Peggy Parker, Science and Sustainability Editor/Seafoodnews.com — 

One month into Alaska’s iconic salmon season and the question is “Where are the fish?” rather than “How high will the catch be?”

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game forecast a harvest of 149 million salmon in 2018, 51.8 million of which is sockeye. Chipping away at that is a severely reduced Copper River run and restricted fishing for chinooks in Cook Inlet and Southeast Alaska so far.

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Bristol Bay’s harvest forecast of nearly 38 million sockeye is the major driver in the state. Test fishing at Port Moller is already underway with an additional vessel to increase the accuracy of the predictive research. The commercial fishery won’t begin in earnest until early to mid July.

Sockeye harvests began in Kodiak last week, and if predictions there and in Chignik and the Alaska Peninsula are on target, the department’s forecast may be close to actual catch.

The current closure of the Copper River has sent much of Cordova’s fishing fleet to Prince William Sound, where 41,000 wild sockeyes have been landed in the Coghill and Eshamy districts as of yesterday. Predictions for chum salmon harvest is an estimated 4 million fish, but last year’s harvest was significantly higher than the forecast.

Of the state’s 70 million projected pink salmon landings, about 32 million are expected from Prince William Sound. Another 23 million pinks are the mid-point projection for landings in Southeast Alaska.

The Copper River hosts an estimated 100 different stocks, and later runs may show up as the summer progresses. But as of yesterday, the escapement up the river was unusually low.

“To date, the sonar count is the 8th lowest on record (1978-2017),” the Cordova-based ADF&G managers noted in an announcement yesterday.

“Cumulative commercial harvest this year is the 2nd lowest harvest to-date in the last 50 years. Cumulative sonar count through June 12 is 178,693 fish whereas a minimum of 276,897 fish are projected by this date,” they said. 

In Cook Inlet, a predicted harvest of nearly 2 million sockeye from the Kenai, Kasilof, and Susitna rivers, and Fish Creek is expected this summer.

Meanwhile, the state issued a set of emergency orders Monday with restrictions for king salmon fishing on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers based on the low numbers of returning fish so far, reports Elizabeth Earl of the Peninsula Clarion.

King salmon in Alaska’s most popular angling rivers are either catch and release or, in some areas, hatchery produced kings may be retained while wild kings are released to spawn.

“Kenai River king salmon and other king salmon stocks throughout Cook Inlet are experiencing a period of low productivity and, since 2009, a below average run strength,” Cook Inlet Management Coordinator Matt Miller wrote in the emergency order.

“As of June 10, 2018, an estimated 1,609 large king salmon have past the River Mile 13.7 king salmon sonar. Therefore, based upon the current inseason inriver run projections, it is warranted to reduce king salmon mortality until run projections solidify.”

All of the major king salmon fishing rivers on the western side of the Kenai Peninsula are now under king salmon restrictions. The Kasilof River is the only river where kings can be kept, with a bag and possession limit of one fish per day greater than 20 inches long, according to Earl’s report.

In Port Moller, the 51-year old test fishing research began again last Sunday. The effort to predict how many sockeye will return to each of five river systems in Bristol Bay is strengthened this year by a second vessel F/V Icelander to help the state’s research vessel Pandalus.

Scott Raborn, fisheries scientist for the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute, told KDLG’s Austin Fast the additional test vessel will improve accuracy.

“The further we fish out, it seems like the more fish we find. Over the last three to four years, the run seems to have been further offshore,” Raborn said. “The number of fish that we’re missing off the end of the transect is an unknown, and we think that’s causing problems with our forecast accuracy.”

Test gillnets are set at 10-mile intervals along an imaginary line from Port Moller to Cape Newenham, but their F/V Pandalus can only reach about 85 miles offshore in a single day without overtaxing its crew.

The F/V Icelander’s crew will double the test fishery’s efforts from June 15 to 22, sampling stations up to 132 nautical miles from Port Moller.

Scientists take genetic samples from the fish they catch to estimate the age and stock compositions of this year’s run, reported Fast. Whether or not the test fishery brings back its second boat next year depends on how useful the data is, Raborn said, adding that fishermen will certainly let them know if they get it right or wrong.

The state describes the 2018 sockeye salmon forecast as historically “robust” — 51.8 million red salmon — and the only species to stand out this year. If their 2018 forecasts are realized, the total harvest of 149 million salmon would be substantially less than the 225.7 million salmon harvested during 2017, mostly due to fewer projected pink salmon harvested.