Commercial fisherman in the Upper Lynn Canal are switching gears and getting ready for the fall coho and chum salmon runs. With average numbers, smaller fish and lower prices so far this summer, the fleet is hoping for a strong finish to their season.
It’s Sunday morning at the Haines Harbor and some boats from the local fleet are getting ready to take off for another opener.
So far this season has produced average numbers of sockeye and chum, and lower prices has meant a lackluster payday for many.
“It’s a tough thing to swallow looking at an average year after three or four, just crazy years,” said John Hagen, captain of the Krista C. “But having below-average prices on top of that is a double whammy for a lot of us.”
Hagen says the early, strong pink salmon run was impressive, though that less-desirable fish doesn’t exactly bring home the bacon. He’s hoping that strong coho and chum runs in the final month of the season will prove more lucrative.
Randy Bachman is the area commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He says that overall, it’s been an interesting year starting with that banner pink run in the first weeks of the commercial season. The pinks came through the fish wheel on the Chilkat in the highest numbers since 1996. During the third week of the season, back in July, a record 215 boats were close by fishing on hatchery chum. Usually, there are about 50 boats in the local fleet.
As for Chinook, or king salmon, early indications show a robust Chinook return up the Chilkat, which was one of the department’s main goals this year. Bachman says heading into the season, an above-average return of sockeye was expected but it’s turned out be about average.
“Our focus early this season was to protect king salmon so we didn’t have a lot of opportunity to capitalize on strong sockeye abundance particularly on the Chilkoot side early in the season,” Bachman said. “But once we were able to bring the fleet further north into Chilkoot and Chilkat inlets, we had some decent sockeye catches in those weeks.”
Escapement on the Chilkoot was at about 68,000 sockeye last week while on the Chilkat side it was at about 55,000, with a projection of around 100,000 on that side by the end of the season.
The fall chum run is also looking to be a little above average based on comparisons from historical data to what biologists are seeing in the fish wheel. Bachman says the fall coho run is off to a slow start.
Bachman says that prices across the board for all species were low this season and the contributing factors are many. He admits he’s no expert on the economics of it all, but one common theory is that the salmon market was flooded last year after a banner sockeye run in Bristol Bay and another late flurry this summer. Ramped up fish farms is another contributing factor to the dramatic drop in price, he says.
“Although there were a lot of fish caught this year, the value of the fishery was probably less than half of what it was last year, because the value of fish is maybe a little better than half when you sum all five species together compared to what it’s been in recent years,” Bachman said.
Ryan Cook is the president of the Lynn Canal Gillnetters Association and has captained his own boat for nearly a decade. He says the most notable factor this season was the size of the fish.
“The fish have just been small all year, for everything,” Cook said. “I think that’s hurt us the most, really. The numbers were big but when it takes a couple hundred of them to fill up the bag and you only get 1,000 pounds out of it, it’s like, geez, that was a lot of work for that. And then you figure out the price and with the little big of a price drop and them smaller fish, it all adds up.”
He says smaller fish go right through the nets, and when they do land those little ones, it’s the same amount of work for less money per pound. As of last week fishermen were getting paid over a dollar per pound for sockeye, which Cook says is about 55 cents less than last year. The price per pound for coho went up last week to $0.80 while chum garner $0.55 per pound.