The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a 2016 pink salmon run about the same size as the one that greeted fishermen this past summer.
This week, the department estimated 34 million pink salmon be harvested in Southeast Alaska next summer. That’s the same number that was harvested this summer, but that may not mean much — pink salmon run in two-year cycles, and there’s little relation between the fish that returned this year and the ones that will return next year.
Pink salmon make up the majority of fish harvested in Southeast Alaska and Alaska as a whole, and the fishing industry is one of the foundations of Southeast Alaska’s economy. This summer, fishermen caught 46.2 million salmon in Southeast; 74 percent were pink salmon.
The 34 million figure estimated for 2016 is below the 10-year average for Southeast Alaska, but that’s partially because the mammoth 2013 harvest brought 89.2 million pinks ashore.
With a 51-year average, 34 million fish is above average.
“Pink salmon returns are notoriously difficult to forecast,” the Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring Project warns on its website.
That project, an effort of the federal Alaska Fisheries Science Center, produces a parallel forecast to the one produced by ADF&G.
Chinook and sockeye salmon spend multiple winters at sea, allowing forecasters to get a better idea of their survival rate. That isn’t possible with pink salmon, which tends to hurt accuracy.
For this summer, NOAA predicted 54.5 million Southeast pinks, while ADF&G estimated 58 million fish. The actual harvest was more than 20 million lower.
Adding to forecasters’ woes are the “anomalously warm sea surface temperatures that have persisted throughout the Gulf of Alaska,” this year’s ADF&G estimate states.
A pulse of warm water has occupied the eastern Gulf since fall 2013, bringing species like bonito, pompano and sunfish to unfamiliar waters. These fish may be competing with or eating juvenile pink salmon, reducing returns.
In addition, the ADF&G report states that even-year returns to northern inside waters of the Panhandle have been particularly poor. In 2014 — the fish returning in 2016 are from that age class — 17 of 21 northern inside pink salmon stocks failed to meet minimum escapement levels set by ADF&G.
Poor returns would bring more bad news for fishermen who endured plunging prices this summer.
According to figures published in October by ADF&G, the price of Southeast pink salmon has dipped sharply from what it was in 2014. The dip is being attributed to a global glut of pinks caused by banner harvests in Russia and the recovery of farmed salmon stocks harmed by a viral infestation.
In 2014, Southeast fishermen earned about $36.7 million for 37 million pink salmon. This year, they earned $26.2 million for 34 million pinks.
Barring an unexpected drop in harvests overseas, pink salmon prices are expected to remain low in 2016.