The Haines small boat harbor on a sunny summer day. (Emily Files)

The Haines small boat harbor on a sunny summer day. (Emily Files)

The gillnet fleet in the Northern Lynn Canal is off to a strong start this season. Though wild sockeye runs are slow to arrive, fishermen are nearing a historically high catch of hatchery-produced chum salmon.

Gillnetters in District 15, the waters between Juneau and Skagway, hauled in an estimated 470,000 chum over four days last week. That’s more than 3,000 fish per boat.

The fishery has been open for about three weeks. Much of the fleet is fishing closer to Juneau, to capitalize on hatchery-produced chum.

Mark Sogge is a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Haines. He says if there is a similarly strong catch this week, the numbers could break records set over the last 10 or 15 years. Here’s Sogge speaking after the July 2-6 opening.

“I look back and there were two years where we were in the well over 400,000 in this last week,” says Sogge. “But nothing as high as our estimate – and I have to stress that our estimate is an initial estimate based on the information that the packers provide us. But it looks to me like this week is higher than any other week at this time in terms of gross harvest numbers.”

Harry Rietze owns the local seafood processing facility Haines Packing Company. The business is processing chum for the first time this year. Rietze says they’ve been working at ‘maximum capacity’ to keep up with the fish coming in.

The chum are purchased at a rate of about $0.80 per pound.

But the news is not good for all local fish populations.

“We’re seeing a tremendous harvest of chum salmon, DIPAC-produced chum salmon, and a very low harvest of sockeye,” says Sogge.

DIPAC, or Douglas Island Pink and Chum, is a Juneau-area fish hatchery.

Sogge says fishermen are nearing the estimated common property harvest for the hatchery stock. That’s the portion of hatchery fish available to the commercial fleet.

“Our total harvest is about 860,000 I think. Somewhere around there, to date, for chum,” says Sogge. “The total common property harvest was estimated to be about a million fish. And the seiners just picked up 125,000 chum.”

Gillnetters in the Northern Lynn Canal averaged only five sockeye per boat during the last opening. Part of that has to do with a management strategy that Sogge implemented to conserve the fish.

“The catch was really low,” says Sogge. “There are two reasons for that. One is there aren’t that many fish around. And the second is the six-inch minimum mesh restriction I put on, which allows a lot of the fish, anything except the really big sockeye to slide through, if they push hard.”

Sogge says a big concern right now is whether or not wild stocks of sockeye in the Chilkoot and Chilkat Rivers are on their way.

“I think over time we’ve seen a tendency for the fish to come in later and in a more condensed catch,” says Sogge. “That’s not necessarily healthy biologically. A fish run should be spread out over a longer period of time in order to have true diversity. That does seem to be happening but it’s not something I can count on happening.”

Haines Packing’s Rietze says they are missing the sockeye right now, and have markets waiting for the reds to come in.

Sogge also has his eye on another wild stock. He says the timing of the chum run in the Endicott River is the same as hatchery DIPAC-produced fish. That means the wild stocks could be intercepted by fishermen going for the hatchery chum.

Total catches of other salmon were minimal compared to chum. During the July 2-6 opening, fishermen in district 15 caught a total of around 13,000 pinks, 800 reds, 120 cohos and 170 kings.