The gillnet fleet in Haines will rumble out of the harbor this weekend for the start of the 2016 commercial salmon fishing season. The first opener is 48 hours long, and starts at 12:01 p.m. on Sunday.
Commercial fisherman Tim Hannon is optimistic. The salmon season starts on Sunday, and he says, with mediocre prices and small fish last year, he’s hearing good things about the season ahead.
“I’m real hopeful that the size was just a one-year fluke and that this year, we’ll be back to normal,” he says.
He’s captained the F/V Shotgun for seven years, but has been commercial fishing in Haines for 15, so he’s seen his share of good years and bad. As he loads up his provisions for the first opener, he says he’s heading out Saturday to try and beat the weather. The National Weather Service is calling for four- and five-foot seas on Saturday and Sunday, with south and southeast winds at 20 to 25 knots. Hannon says he’s happy to hunker down on his boat out in a calm spot until the opener starts.
“The southerly breeze helps when it’s a little rougher, that’ll bring ‘em closer to the surface where you can reach them with the net, so, the southerly wind helps.”
Hannon says about half of his yearly income stems from the four months he spends fishing.
Mark Sogge is the area commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He says preliminary numbers are not hard-and-fast because there are so many influencing factors.
“But if you look at just the escapement goals, and zooplankton and limnology data, it looks like Chilkoot should be coming in about average, our escapement was right in the middle of the goal range,” Sogge explains. “Whereas on the Chilkat side, the two primary years were both below goal.”
Sogge says at last count on the Chilkoot weir, almost 500 salmon had passed through. The average is about three times that. But, he says, the initial part of the run fluctuates so much, that it could peak suddenly.
“We’re not surprised, there’s no reason for conservation on the Chilkoot side.”
And it’s too early to say much about the Chilkat side, he says.
“As far as when we’ll know, it’s the fish wheels that give us the indicator in the river, and those are not catching much at all yet, which isn’t really surprising. And then it’s the fleet more than that. As soon as the fleet starts catching fish, we’ll be out there sampling and we’ll get some idea of how many fish are being caught right away, and then we’ll also get an idea of stock composition from scale data.”
So far, the fish coming through the weir at Chilkoot have been of average size, not puny like last year. But, again, he says it’s very early to make broad statements about the run.
One thing that is certain is continuing poor numbers when it comes to Chinook, or king, salmon. Escapement numbers on the Taku River were 11,000 – about 8,000 fewer than predicted.
“We are being very conservative in the north end to protect the Chinook,” Sogge says. “The Taku (River) came in way under goal. Their goal was 19,000 for Chinook escapement and the Chilkat Chinooks are often tied in terms of their numbers that return. So, if Taku comes in low, then there’s a possibility that Chilkat will come in low, too, below our estimates even. We’re going to be watching that really carefully and try not to harvest mature Chinook if we possibly can. I have a six-inch maximum mesh restriction on the whole canal.”
Sogge says the one new closure this year is a little spot called Yankee Cove near Benjamin Island.
On average there are around 50 boats in the local fleet, but that number fluctuates through the season depending the strength of the particular run.