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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Please find the attached UCI commercial fishing harvest through August 15.


Alyssa Frothingham
UCI Assistant Area Management Biologist
43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road, Suite B
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Coast Guard Medevacs 60-Year-Old Vessel Master Near Knowles Head, Alaska

August 16, 2019

A 60-year-old man was medevaced from a 52-foot fishing vessel, two miles south of Knowles Head, Alaska on Thursday afternoon by the Coast Guard.

An Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew diverted from a nearby training mission hoisted the man from the Lady Kay vessel and transported him to emergency services in Cordova at 12:50 p.m. Reports from the hospital say that the man was in stable condition at the time of transfer.

Watchstanders at the Sector Anchorage command center received a notification at 11:33 a.m. of an injured vessel master. A medevac was recommended for the injured man after a consultation with a Coast Guard duty flight surgeon.

Ryan Doyle
Urner Barry
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Seattle Tourists Can Still See Wild Salmon at the Ballard Locks, On Video

Copyright © 2019 The Seattle Times: Web Edition
By Danny Westneat
August 16, 2019

"Mommy, I see a fish!"

I was out at the Ballard Locks on a recent morning, and — contrary to the excited little girl — there wasn't a fish in sight.

Not a real one anyway. The girl, part of a healthy stream of tourists coursing past the locks' famed underwater salmon-viewing windows, had instead spied the only fish in evidence that morning — one displayed on the facility's new 15-foot flat-screen video wall.

The screens, installed in June, were placed just above the windows where more than a million visitors a year come to peer into the true beating heart of Seattle — the pulsing migration of hundreds of thousands of salmon.

The video display was put there because tour guides no longer have that much of the real thing to point to.

This summer only 17,064 sockeye were tallied passing through the Locks over two months of counting, the lowest figure ever recorded (the counting started in 1972).

It's not just lower by a little. The annual average as recently as the decade of the 2000s was 237,000 sockeye through the Locks.

Back in 2006, which is starting to feel like a different epoch, 36,319 sockeye bombarded the fish ladder in a single day.

"So much wildness surging through the city has the feel of a miracle to it," I wrote about that 2006 run.

Our sockeye run was at one time the biggest in the lower 48 states, and one of the larger urban fish runs in the world. For my money it was Seattle's greatest tourist attraction — a must-see for out-of-towners, because it was the main thing that makes us different from anywhere else.

Today the video is pretty good.

"I don't want to pour cold water on everyone who is out there working to save the sockeye, but it's going downhill so fast it feels like we might be nearing the end," said Frank Urabeck, a longtime sport-fishing advocate who was dubbed "Mr. Sockeye" because of his ardor for the Lake Washington run.

"Last year the news was concerning, but this year the news is devastating," the Cedar River Council, an advisory group formed for that river basin, recently wrote to the governor, begging for intervention.

So far neither a new $8 million hatchery nor hundreds of millions of dollars in habitat improvements on the spawning grounds, the Cedar River, have been able to lift it back up.

Pollution, a "blob" of warm ocean water, other fish feasting on salmon fry in the lake, habitat destruction, the general warming of Lake Washington water — all share blame for the demise, biologists have suggested. There hasn't been a sports-fishing season for sockeye in 13 years.

Sockeye were first planted in the river in the 1930s, so the run is not eligible for federal protections. Each year Seattle also sees small runs of chinook and coho salmon swim through the Locks. Many of those are hatchery fish, while the wild run of chinook has been on the Endangered Species list since 1999.

Urabeck notes that the return of 17,000 sockeye this year is a lot worse than it sounds. Last year, nearly twice that number, 32,100, were counted at the Locks. But mysteriously only about a quarter made it to the river to spawn. That means that after traveling hundreds if not thousands of ocean miles, three-quarters of the fish that went through the Locks somehow died in the Ship Canal or Lake Washington, right on the doorstep of their reproductive goal.

"This year we could be left with just a few thousand spawners in the river," Urabeck said. "So we're down to a token. You get to populations that low and it's hard to sustain itself."

If there was something you all could do, a number to call or a donation to make, I'd give it to you. But Seattle's totemic fish runs have already received sustained attention and hundreds of millions in aid. If there's a way to save them now, there's no agreement what that might be.

What's ebbing away is more than a planted fish run. As recently as the 2000s, up to 200,000 sockeye spawned here naturally, meaning they swam through the teeth of the city to dig nests in the gravel of a local river. I saw it, out east of Renton, the reddening fish surging upstream bank to bank like blood cells in an artery. I thought then: How far gone could we be, if wild salmon could still thrive here?

Today the video displays, just by their presence, say the opposite. Seattle's on the verge of being a museum of its former self.

Photo Credit: Urner Barry
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