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Season so Far is ?Lackluster’ at Best

August 3, 2008

By Laine Welch, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

Aug. 3–”Lackluster” best describes Alaska’s salmon season so far, and catches are likely to come up short when it is all over.

Fishery managers projected a 132 million salmon harvest for 2007, but catches in late July totaled just 66 million fish past the midpoint of the season.

“I would say that we will be fortunate to make the forecast, but pinks could make up for a lot quickly,” said Geron Bruce, deputy director of the state commercial fisheries division. “We’re at a really critical point right now, transitioning from sockeye and early chum runs to pink salmon, and some later sockeye fisheries and then cohos.”

Managers predicted a significant decrease in the 2008 salmon catches, primarily due to projected reductions in pink salmon. But despite some bright spots at Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the South Peninsula, most Alaska salmon runs have been late and alarmingly low, yielding reduced catches.

At Copper River, for example, the cumulative harvest for all 14 openers this season is 309,284 sockeye (red) and 11,255 Chinook (king) salmon. That compares to a total forecast of 742,166 sockeye and 46,908 kings for a fishery that is winding down fast.

Sockeye salmon is the big money fish, comprising two-thirds of the value of Alaska’s total salmon catch. The statewide sockeye catch so far is 36 million; the preseason forecast called for 47 million fish.

“I don’t think our sockeye catches are going to come up to what we expected. But it will still be pretty good,” Bruce said.

“It sucks. It’s really terrible,” said Tuck Bonney, assistant manager at Alaska Pacific Seafoods, discussing the Kodiak salmon fishery. Sockeye escapements have been marginal at major Kodiak systems this summer, and the combined catches for all species are below 2 million fish.

The story was a bit different in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon runs. Fishermen were poised to catch 31 million reds there this summer, but when the run arrived late and all at once, processing capacity was overwhelmed. When the catch reached 2.6 million fish in a single day, fishermen were put on strict trip limits or told to stop fishing altogether.

“The governor’s office got an earful from Bristol Bay fishermen who estimated 3 million harvestable fish swam by their idled nets,” said fisheries advisor Cora Crome.

The state “actively put out feelers” for more processors, Crome said, but got no takers.

“We just didn’t get any companies that really had a strong interest in being a new presence, and we definitely didn’t get any applications from floating processors,” Crome said, adding that it is apparent that Bristol Bay can use an assist. “We have a consistent pattern in the Bay right at the peak of the run where it’s clear that there is a need out there for a little bit more processing.”

Meanwhile, Alaska’s summer chum fisheries have just passed the mid-point with good catches (mostly hatchery fish) in prime producing regions of Southeast and Prince William Sound. The statewide chum harvest so far is 11 million out of a 19 million fish forecast.

It’s too early yet to predict any trends for coho salmon, but Bruce said early catches were “reasonable” at 1.5 million. The projected Alaska catch is 4.4 million cohos.

Which brings us back to those all-important, tough-to-predict pinks.

While early hatchery runs appear strong at Price William Sound, the wild pink returns appear weak there and at other prime producing regions of Kodiak and especially Southeast Alaska.

“Southeast is the largest producer of wild pinks salmon and it has not produced much of anything so far,” said Bruce. “August will tell the tale.”

The statewide pink salmon catch so far has topped 18 million fish. The projected harvest of 66 million pinks is down by more than half from last year, and the lowest catch since 1992.

Theories abound as to why so many of Alaska’s salmon returns have been weak this year, but many blame it on the cooler water and weather.

“That transition from fresh water to the marine environment is a really critical time period for juvenile salmon, and we haven’t had very good springs in Alaska for several years. I believe that the early marine stage has had high mortality,” Bruce said.

The cold weather, scratchy catches and sky rocketing fuel prices resulted in fewer salmon fishermen out on the water this year. Just 60 seiners are participating at Kodiak, for example, compared to 141 last year. The fleet at Copper River had dwindled to between 80 to 100 boats, down from nearly 500 earlier this season.

“Some people have had some pretty good paychecks in July,” Bruce said. “But if things die off in August, it’s going to really take their bottom line down quite a bit.”

A lack of buyers for salmon in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions will add to the economic struggle in those remote Alaska regions.

The state will release the preliminary harvest and value estimates for the 2008 fishery in September.

Alaska and the U.S. cannot lay any claim to the Arctic unless it signs on to the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

“We have an opportunity as an Arctic nation to extend our territory based on the outer continental shelf and annex an area close to the size of California. That would be available to us for resource exploration and development,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is urging Congress to ratify the treaty this year.

Russia has already planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole and is building the first offshore oil rig that can withstand extreme cold and pack ice. Norway is staking claims to vast oil and gas deposits, and Canada has announced plans for an Arctic military training base. But the U.S. is not even at the table as Arctic borders are being drawn.

“Not only can we not submit a claim or application, we cannot dispute anybody else’s if we are not a signatory to that treaty,” Murkowski said in a phone interview.

The Law of the Sea Treaty originated in 1982 by the United Nations as a way to govern activities on, over and beneath the oceans. But some provisions were strongly opposed by then-President Ronald Reagan, and the U.S. has never signed on.

Last week the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the Arctic holds up to 25 percent of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves. Murkowski said that means it’s time for the U.S. to get serious about signing the treaty.

This year the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia adopted a declaration of cooperation in the Arctic, which supports the Law of the Sea Treaty as the legal framework for governance. If Congress does not ratify it this session, Murkowski said, it’s back to the drawing board next year.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. This article is protected by copyright and may not be reprinted or distributed without permission. Visit www.alaskafishfactor.com or contact msfish@alaska.com for information.

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