Pink harvest lowest in 40 years

Seiners harvest less than a third of Southeast forecast this year

A male pink salmon makes its way upstream to spawn in August of 2010. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

A male pink salmon makes its way upstream to spawn in August of 2010. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

With the closure of directed pink salmon fisheries last week, commercial seine salmon season is effectively over in Southeast Alaska.

But for many seiners, it never really began. This year’s pink salmon harvest has been dismal, the lowest since 1976.

Just over 7.5 million pinks have been harvested to date, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game pink and chum salmon project leader for Southeast Andy Piston. From 1960-2018, the average has been 30 million.

“There were a lot fewer fish,” Piston said.

Even in an off year — region pinks spawn in number only every two years — 2018’s pink run has been a bust. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game set its pre-season forecast at 23 million fish, more than three times the catch.

The last directed pink salmon fishery closed in Southeast last week. Commercial salmon seiners, the few that are still working in Southeast, are targeting a few chum salmon fisheries still open.

It’s possible the pink salmon caught at Annette Island in the Ketchikan area will push the total over 8 million fish for the year. But Piston said that’s unlikely.

“I doubt we’ll hit 8 million,” Piston said.

Pinks don’t act uniformly across Southeast, Piston noted, but region wide, harvests on even-numbered years tend to be lower than odd-numbered years.

In southern Southeast, the bread and butter for the majority of the seine fleet, harvests on even-numbered years have been good lately. That was one reason fishery managers believed, despite some indication otherwise, that this year’s harvest wouldn’t be as low as it turned out.

The problem area is inside waters in northern Southeast. Returns were especially poor near the Juneau area. To protect the few fish that did return, fishery managers cut back on the amount of time fishermen were allowed to fish in northern Southeast.

“We’re doing the only thing we have any control over, and that is we’re just not having any harvest in those areas,” Piston said.

Piston said they don’t know yet what’s causing the low harvest on northern Southeast inside waters, but they did have some indication that this year’s run would be poor. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration trawl survey of juvenile pink salmon last year — the fish that grew to return this year — showed the lowest number of juvenile pinks in survey history, Piston said.

Southern Southeast and the northern outer coast, “for the most part,” returned numbers within management targets, Piston said, meaning Fish and Game has reason to believe this year’s poor harvest won’t result in low reproduction in those areas.

“There may be a few weak areas, but for the most part, we’re getting fish into the streams,” Piston said.

One bright light this year has been a one-day harvest of chum salmon at Crawfish Inlet. On Aug. 30, 90 seine vessels in the Baranof Island inlet caught a region record 900,000 chum salmon.

Those chum were the first hatchery-produced class to return to Crawfish Inlet after the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture began seeding the inlet with chum salmon four years ago.

Two years ago, seiners harvested 18 million pinks. That was declared a disaster by the federal government, which announced $56 million in disaster relief funds for fishermen, processors and municipalities affected by the humpy no show.

How that money will be spent is still being decided. A draft report, which is currently under an extended public comment period, awards the biggest portion of the money, $32 million, to fishermen.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.

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