July 13, 2008

Salmon Offers Commercial Fishermen Feast and Famine

By Margaret Bauman, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

Jul. 13--Sockeye salmon returning to Bristol Bay are running a little late this year, but you'd never know it from the glut of reds now overwhelming processors in Bristol Bay.

Harvesters, who were initially getting a reported 60 cents to 70 cents a pound, were livid and complaining to the office of Gov. Sarah Palin. Fishermen had requested before the season began that the state allow additional processors into Bristol Bay, but the state concluded from an industry survey that processors would be able to handle the run.

Matt Jones, a state Department of Fish and Game biologist in Dillingham, said they're sticking with a preseason harvest forecast of 29.6 million sockeyes and then some.

Through July 6, some 1,353 fishing vessels in Bristol Bay had harvested 15.8 million pounds of reds, compared to 13.6 million reds for the same period a year ago. A strong pulse of fish overwhelmed processing capacity, and processors were buying only limited harvests or suspending buying altogether for a short period of time.

"They're still restricting us and it sucks," said veteran Bristol Bay fisherman Robin Samuelsen, speaking from a cell phone on his boat in the Nushagak River July 7.

"I'm fishing the Nushagak, but the whole of Bristol Bay is on limits."

"Things can't happen overnight, but something needs to be done out here to help facilitate new companies, new processors in the bay," said David Harsilla, executive director of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association. He said the lack of processor capacity for the glut of fish was posing a real hardship.

Processors declined comment.

Through July 3, the state's fisheries had harvested a total of 20.9 million salmon of all species, including 12.9 million sockeye, 4.2 million chum, 3.7 million pinks, 131,000 chinook and 30,000 silver salmon.

State biologists noted that the allocation for harvest in the Naknek-Kvichak district on the east side of the bay has been hard to execute, given limits imposed by the processors, and in the Nushagak district, on the west side, the most significant development is that virtually every processor had suspended buying for a period or instituted limits, and that would probably be the status quo for the next week.

The situation was drastically different on the Lower Yukon River, where in an effort to conserve Chinook salmon, the commercial king harvest was cancelled and subsistence salmon fishing periods were reduced, with gear restrictions implemented upriver.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal agency, is working to limit the huge amount of king salmon caught incidentally by the pollock fishery, but has yet to resolve the problem.

The Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region as a whole through July 3 had a harvest of 48,000 chums, 34,000 sockeye and 20,000 kings, all of it in the Kuskokwim River and Kuskokwim Bay.

"We had a chinook run, but they never let us fish on it," said Jack Schultheis, sales manager for Kwik'Pak Fisheries at Emmonak, on the Lower Yukon. The pulse of kings headed upriver simply was not sufficient to allow for a commercial harvest.

The king harvest, normally worth about $4 million, constitutes the bulk of the area's economy, he said.

"On the other hand, I think they could have let us fish chums earlier," Schultheis said. "We missed a big glut of fish from about June 27 through July 3, a tremendous run, and they held us back, trying to keep us from catching any kings incidentally. We had one decent opening, took 20,000 chum, but since then it hasn't been very great."

Schultheis said that normally the summer chum harvest is done by July 12. Sometimes the run strings out through the middle of July though, "and we haven't given up on it," he said.

Marketwise, the Yukon chums are doing well, with about half of the harvest headed for Europe, and half to domestic markets.

Schultheis said that despite efforts of state fishery officials to give them as much time as possible, that Kwik'Pak had paid out only $96,000 so far to 310 fishers on the chum run.

In Prince William Sound, the Copper River harvest through July 3 was a dismal 275,000 reds and 11,000 kings. The Prince William Sound region as a whole had a harvest of 2.9 million chum, 1.6 million pink, 753,000 sockeye and 11,000 kings.

The westward region of Alaska, including the South Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak, Chignik and North Peninsula, was having better luck. Through July 3, the westward region harvest of 5.2 million salmon included 2.7 million sockeye, 2 million pink, 505,000 chum and 9 million kings.

Cook Inlet had a harvest of 424,000 red and 6,000 king salmon.

John Hilsinger, director of commercial fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, noted that the state has had a long run of really good salmon returns over the past few years.

"Every once in a while you're going to get one that's poor. We always like to have good returns, but we can't" (always), he said. "The thing I ask is that people understand that and support us in meeting our escapement goals and don't perpetuate poor runs by having low escapement."

Most fisheries research done by the state agency is for monitoring fisheries and assessing the stocks at hand, rather than delving into why some stocks are declining.


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