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

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

Commercial gillnetters in the Upper Lynn Canal started the season earlier this month. While stocks of chum salmon are strong, there are concerns about low numbers of wild sockeye in the area.

On June 18, around 130 boats set out for the first opening of the commercial drift gillnet fishery. While they’re not short of fish to catch, one stock in particular is below average this year.

Mark Sogge is a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Haines. He says he’s concerned about wild stocks of Chilkoot sockeye salmon. So far, the escapement is just over 1,000 fish. That’s way below average.

“The average by this period of time is more like probably 4,000 fish, so we’re about a quarter of where we should be,” says Sogge.

Sogge says the low escapement was unexpected. He says it is possible the reds are just late to arrive this year.

“Timing is something – we’ve had a cold summer and it may easily be that the fish were holding off offshore, and they’re holding off in salt water and they will come,” says Sogge.

But if that’s not the case, and the fish don’t show up, Sogge says he may have to impose additional restrictions on the fleet to conserve fish.

Sogge says most of the gillnet fleet is fishing closer to Juneau, in management area 15C. That’s where hatchery-produced chum salmon are concentrated. He says those numbers are strong. This week fishermen averaged around 400 chum per boat.

Locally, gillnetters are facing additional restrictions this year. Fish and Game is attempting to limit the bycatch of king salmon. Those fish saw a historically low escapement last year and the forecast for this season is even worse.

King salmon decline is also impacting the local subsistence fishery. Certain areas are opening later than usual this summer.

By next week, Sogge says he usually opens the boat harbor area seven-days-a-week. That spot is midway between Haines and Juneau on the western side of the Lynn Canal, in management area 15C. But, he says that will be limited this year. He’s also implemented mesh size restrictions on commercial gillnets. And, there are night closures in management area 15A, which is closer to Haines. But, Sogge says very few boats are actually fishing in that area right now.

This week, Sogge extended an opening in a limited area of 15C for an additional 48 hours. That decision was made based on a couple factors, including strong numbers of chum.