Smallest sockeye harvest in last 10 years; late runs made openings complex

Sockeye salmon were scarcer in Upper Cook Inlet this year, but coho, chum and pink salmon were more plentiful than expected.

Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet harvested fewer overall salmon this year than average, and made less, according to a season summary released Tuesday by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Sockeye harvests were smaller than average, and they showed up late, frontloading the commercial fishery with most of its sockeye catch for the season before July 20.

Fishermen were expecting a slow year, based on the preseason forecast, and the actual harvest was slightly larger than the forecast. Commercial fishermen brought in about 1.8 million sockeye, according to the season summary, compared to the preseason forecast of 1.7 million sockeye.

“The Kenai River run exceeded the forecast by approximately 700,000 sockeye salmon and Fish Creek exceeded the forecast by 4,000 sockeye salmon,” the report states. “The Kasilof River sockeye salmon total run estimate was very close to forecast with approximately 4,000 sockeye salmon less than expected, while the number of sockeye salmon returning to the Susitna River and all other systems (minor systems) was less than forecast.”

The commercial sockeye harvest was the smallest in the last decade, about 18 percent lower than the 2007–2016 average, according to the season summary. Altogether, fishermen harvested about 3 million salmon of all species, about half a million fewer than the recent 10-year average.

Sockeye are the most valuable species on the books for Cook Inlet fishermen — about 93 percent of the value in a typical year is in sockeye salmon. In 2017, it was about 83 percent, or $19.6 million. Average price per pound paid to fishermen fell around $1.86, according to the season summary.

It was a middle-ground price compared to other years and other areas of Alaska — last year, Upper Cook Inlet fishermen received an average of about $1.51 per pound, while they received an average of $2.18 per pound in 2013. The volume was smaller, though, leading to total season exvessel value 21 percent below the recent 10-year average, according to the summary.

“It was a real small harvest expectation,” said commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields. “We exceeded it by a little bit. … It’s not the strongest by any means, but it was a good price that helped the harvest. And the coho run helped — it came in late but pretty good.”

Late run timing left managers puzzling on how to schedule commercial openings. Historical models showed that the Kenai River sockeye run should have been about 40 percent complete by July 20, when managers re-evaluated the run size, but it was still only at about 265,000 fish, though commercial fishermen had harvested about 1.4 million sockeye.

The sockeye run has been late to show up in the rivers before, but the one this year was exceptionally late, Shields said. Final calculations are still in the works, but he estimated it was between four and seven days late, which made it hard for managers to decide whether to open up commercial fishing with the expectation the fish would show up or close commercial fishing on the off chance the fish didn’t show up at all. This year, they erred on the side of caution and closed the fishery twice to boost passage.

“(Managers are) really nervous about taking that late of a run timing prediction in the middle of the season and believing it,” Shields said. “We knew it was going to be late. … It caught us off guard, both sockeye and coho, and we took restrictions on the commercial fishery.”

After those closures, the sockeye showed up in force, and managers exceeded their escapement goals on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and on Fish Creek at the end of the season. None of the margins over the goals were wide, but it was frustrating for the managers and for the fishermen who were restricted from fishing in season, Shields said.

Read the rest of the article here.


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