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Alaska Fish Factor: salmon season falls just short

Laine Welch
28 August 2017, at 10:10am

Alaska’s salmon season is winding down and, while catches have made the record books in some regions, the state-wide take will fall a bit short of the 204 million fish forecast.

“We are within about 10 percent of the forecast, so that’s very positive and overall it’s been a pretty good season,” said Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.    

The state-wide salmon catch through 25th August topped 191 million. The shortfall, Bowers said, again stems from the arrival of fewer pink salmon.      

“We were expecting a harvest of about 142 million, right now it’s at 114 million. We’re probably not going to catch another 30 million pinks between now and the end of the season,” he said.      

Still, the bread and butter catches are far better than last year, when pink returns were so dismal it prompted a disaster declaration by Governor Walker.      

This summer’s humpy haul at the three prime producing regions all are within the lower ends of the forecast ranges, with Southeast’s take so far on its way to 28 million, Kodiak at 19 million and Prince William Sound nearing 42 million pink salmon (humpback whale predation is being blamed on lower pink salmon catches there).

One big pink winner this year, Bowers said, is the Alaska Peninsula which had a “spectacular season.”  

“Their pink harvest (nearly 19 million) and chum catch (nearly 2 million) will end up in the top five on record,” Bowers said. “And the Peninsula sockeye harvest (7 million) is going to the second or third largest ever.”

It will be sockeyes that help offset any number shortfalls this season, with a statewide take of about 52 million, of which nearly 37 million came from Bristol Bay.      

“It is the tenth time in history that we’ve harvested over 50 million sockeye salmon,” Bowers said. “Catches for the previous two years also topped 50 million, but prior to that, you had to go back to the mid- to late 1990s to see such a large sockeye harvest.”      

Perhaps the biggest salmon surprise this year was the huge returns of chum salmon across the state. The catch to date of 21.2 million chums is just shy of the all-time record of 24 million fish set in 2000.      

“It’s one of the six times we’ve ever harvested over 20 million chums. That was a surprise. We didn’t expect that at all,” Bower said, adding that coho catches are also stronger than usual.      

On the Yukon River, a catch of more than one million chum salmon have been taken so far, with the best fall catches in history. The Yukon also has seen the biggest king salmon returns since 2005.

Salmon even appeared at Barrow, where locals were able to pack their freezers with a mix of chums, pinks and kings.      

“That’s a relatively new phenomenon,” Bowers said. “We don’t have any assessment projects to monitor up there, but it’s pretty exciting. That would be a range extension potentially for some species and it will be interesting to hear if those have established themselves as spawning populations or if it’s just a few strays that wandered up there.”      

Another big salmon downer this year was the unprecedented and complete closure for king salmon in Southeast Alaska, the largest producing area. Catches there totaled just 165,000 fish; the statewide king salmon take stands at 244,000.      

Bowers said it’s too soon to predict a total dockside value for the 2017 salmon catch, but with higher prices across the board, it will certainly eclipse the 2016 value of $406 million. Preliminary totals for the 2017 salmon season will be released in November.

Discards drop

Fewer fish are being discarded by the world’s fishing fleets, but they still are tossing back 10 million tons of fish every year – 10 percent of global catches. Nearly half of all discards occur in the Pacific Ocean.

 The discards are fish that may be too small, damaged, inedible, out of season or of little market value. Prior to the year 2000, discards comprised up to 20 percent of the world catches, reaching a peak of 19 million tons in 1989. The discard levels have been dropping steadily ever since.

Those are some of the conclusions in a new University of British Columbia catch reconstruction project that derived discard estimates for all major fisheries in the world going back to the 1950s. 

High discards result from poor fishing practices and inadequate management, the report says.

The biggest reason discards are declining likely reflects lower global fish catches. Fishing operations are catching less fish, so there’s less for them to throw away. From 1950 through 1996, world catches rose from 28 million to 130 million tons per year; since then fish catches have declined by 1.2 million tons a year.

Better fisheries management in some areas also has played a role in reducing discards, including strict rules on reducing waste and forbidding discards in Norway and parts of Europe.      

The location of fish discards also has shifted over the decades. From the 1950s to the 1980s, discarding mostly occurred in northern Atlantic waters off the coasts of the US, Canada and Europe. In the Pacific, discards hit a high of more than nine million tons in 1990 and have declined since to under five million tons per year. Pacific discards are happening mostly off the coasts of Russia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Russian fishing fleets have accounted for more than half of the discards in recent decades. In Alaskan waters, much of the fish taken as bycatch is not discarded but donated to food banks instead.