Alaska’s 2018 salmon season officially gets underway this week with the first 12-hour opener on May 17 for sockeyes and kings returning to the Copper River.
The catch there this year calls for 19,000 kings and 942,000 sockeye salmon targeted by a fleet of more than 500 drift gillnetters.
Here’s a primer of how fishery managers project the rest of Alaska’s salmon season may play out:
Statewide, the 2018 salmon harvest is projected at 149 million fish, down 34 percent from the 2017 take of 226 million salmon.
The shortfall this season stems from lower projections for hard to predict pink salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a total humpie harvest of just over 70 million, down by half from last year.
For sockeyes, a statewide catch of about 52 million is down by 1.8 million fish from 2017, which was the 5th largest red salmon catch since 1970. By far, most of the sockeyes will come from Bristol Bay’s nine river systems where a harvest of 37.5 million is projected.
For chum salmon, this year’s Alaska catch is pegged at 21 million, down by nearly four million from last year’s huge 25 million haul, the largest catch in in 47 years.
The 2018 coho catch should be nearly 6 million, an increase of 600,000 silvers from last season.
For Chinook salmon, a catch of 99,000 is projected in areas outside of Southeast Alaska, where the numbers are determined by treaty with Canada.
The Southeast harvest will be just 130,000 fish for all users, down 80,000 from last year. For commercial trollers the take is 95,700 taken from a few select areas. The salmon market outlook is good heading into the 2018 season.
“Demand for Alaska salmon is fairly strong and competing farmed salmon prices are high. And despite catching over a billion pounds of salmon last year, there are no big inventory concerns,” said longtime fisheries economist Andy Wink of Wink Research and Consulting.”
Alaska sockeye could face some competition in its expanding fresh market sales from fish at the Fraser River in British Columbia.
“Their runs have popped every four years and this is an up year for that system. That would bring a significant volume of fish to market this year,” Wink said, adding “I’m not too concerned because demand for Alaska sockeye is robust and farmed prices are providing a lot of support.”
The average sockeye price paid to Alaska salmon fishermen in 2017 was $1.13 per pound.
The price for Chinook salmon was $5.86, coho salmon at $1.19, pinks at $.32 and chum salmon averaged $.66 a pound at the docks.
The total value of the 2017 salmon fishery was nearly $680 million for Alaska’s fishermen, a nearly 67 percent increase over 2016.
Clam diggers get down
Razor clams from Alaska are a rare delicacy and are snapped up by restaurants on the west coast and Canada.
The giant clams, which can reach more than 10 inches, are harvested by hand from a single, 10-mile stretch of beach on the west side of Cook Inlet at the southwest corner of Polly Creek. The fishery, which opens in May and can run into August, is the only commercial razor clam fishery in Alaska.
The diggers are allowed to take 350,000 to 400,000 pounds of clams in the shell this year and are paid $.65 to $.75 per pound.
“About half of that is clam meat. Any broken clams go to the pet food market,” said Pat Shields, regional manager at Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
Coolers filled with whole clams are flown four to six times a day from the beach to the Pacific Alaska Shellfish plant in Nikiski, where they are immediately processed and sent to awaiting markets.
“The processors also get $.60 to $.70 a pound to shuck them. Then they are vacuum packed and sent fresh or frozen to a lot of markets. It’s a really good product,” Shields added.
Nearly all of the clam diggers out on the Cook Inlet flats are from out of state.
“Most of the diggers are Hispanics from California,” Shields said. “It’s such hard work that we have a hard time finding local folks to participate.
“You put this big bag on your belt and you’re stooped over for hours at a time,” Shields explained. “Most of them use their hands or a very small spade. They dump them into a bucket and the clams get sorted in coolers.”
Other Cook Inlet beaches have been closed to clam digging since 2014 due to a drop off in the stocks. More recently state fishery biologists have found encouraging signs of lots of juvenile razors signaling a potential rebound of the delicious clams.
Cash for tags
Hook a sablefish (black cod) with a bright orange or green tag and you would win cash. State fish managers awarded $3,000 to seven lucky winners in cash prizes ranging from $250 to $1,000. Their names were drawn by lottery among all those who had returned tags over the past year. Fishery biologists at ADF&G have been tagging sablefish in Southeast Alaska since 1979 to learn more about the fishes movement, growth, and abundance.
The farthest north returned sablefish tag was from St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea; the farthest south came from Humboldt, California. But for the most part, most sablefish stay close to home.
“You have your sablefish that are like I love my home, I’m just going to stay here,” said Naomi Bargmann at ADF&G in Sitka.
“That is about 85 to 90 percent of the fish that we get in Chatham (Strait), they stay,” she added. “The rest of them will pick up like Magellan and go explore other places.”
One of the oldest tags was 34 years old, returned in 2013, and nearly 35,000 have been recovered in all. This month 7,000 more tagged sablefish were released, bringing the total to more than 140,000 tags since the project began.
To qualify for the lottery, the returned tags must include the latitude and longitude where the sablefish was caught and the capture date and method. Anyone who returns a tag receives a t-shirt.
• • Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally.