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By JOHN LEE McLAUGHLIN
Daily News Staff Writer
Rain showers expected this weekend for southern Southeast Alaska promise a much needed drink for the limited number of pink salmon that have returned so far this year to the region — after a recent stretch of dry summer heat threatened to zap their freshwater spawning grounds.
The fish that amass in the greatest numbers during July and August have delivered an unusual 2017 return mostly to the northern reaches of the Alaska panhandle. Meanwhile, pinks have been surprisingly absent, at least initially, from the historically strong fishing waters of the Ketchikan area and off Prince of Wales Island.
What fish have surfaced in southern Southeast have been dealt the added challenge of navigating low-level freshwater streams en route to spawn, namely on Prince of Wales Island.
The largest pink salmon catches so far during the summer season have occurred in the Sitka area, with commercial fishing near Juneau and north of Petersburg beginning to show added promise, perhaps even a later-than-expected run this year, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Regional Fisheries Management Coordinator Dan Gray.
“Northern Southeast in general, I would say the Sitka area and Juneau area, and the northern parts of the Petersburg area are starting to hit pretty well,” Gray said Friday.
“It’s a pretty big surprise that Ketchikan’s having the year that their having,” he said. “The area down there has been a pretty big driver (of pink salmon fishing) for several years now.”
Commercial purse seiners in Section 13-A north of Sitka, for instance, landed an estimated nearly 1.7 million pinks during the most recent set of openings this month for the gear group. A total of 104 vessels fished the area, according to Fish and Game.
During the same week of early August openings in the Ketchikan area, just 23,000 pinks were landed from District 1 by a mere six boats, according to the department.
In the same week of fishing last year, 60 boats in District 1 landed some 550,000 pinks, effectively dwarfing the 100,000 landed then by 12 boats in Section 13-A waters north of Sitka, according to Fish and Game.
Mandated by the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty, conservation efforts in July — which initially kept closed the productive District 4 waters west of Prince of Wales Island to protect Canadian sockeyes originating from the Nass and Skeena rivers — put an early damper on commercial pink salmon fishing in southern Southeast.
Subsequent pink salmon abundance in the region has been “disappointing,” and the related fishing effort so far has come at a record low, according to Fish and Game’s Ketchikan Area Management Biologist Scott Walker.
What’s more, Walker said, the recent stretch of hot, rainless days has produced dangerously low fresh water levels, mainly on Prince of Wales Island, where freshwater streams rely solely on precipitation to maintain fish-friendly flows.
Waterways on the island lack the plentiful snowmelt found on the inner islands and mainland, as well as the glacial meltwater found farther to the north. Low water levels in freshwater streams threaten salmon survival.
“Low water conditions do several things,” Walker said. “The first thing is that there’s not enough (freshwater) for the fish to even get up into.”
“Probably the biggest thing that happens is that you have die-offs,” he said. “The water holds oxygen, obviously. And the colder the water is, the more oxygen it can hold.
“So if you get this river that’s plugged full of salmon, and the water levels get down and down and down,” Walker said, “pretty soon, they’re all kind of in these little pools — the water levels are too low — and they use up all the oxygen.”
The salmon essentially suffocate.
Warm water carries less oxygen, thereby causing a greater potential for salmon die-offs. Walker said such a situation previously killed as many as 100,000 salmon at Staney Creek on Prince of Wales Island.
But, so long as enough rain falls in the coming days, Walker said pinks now navigating freshwater streams of the region could get a reprieve. No large die-offs have yet occurred, he said.
“I saw a few dead fish (Thursday) that might have been low-water related,” he said, “but it’s also the time when fish start to die off (naturally).”
“So many times I worry, and I worry, and I worry, and then, rain comes just at the right time, and this (weekend) is a perfect example,” Walker said. “But, how much rain are we going to get, you know? What we need now is a good soaking, so that water can trickle down from the mountains and keep these streams going.”
As of this past Friday, the southern inner channels were expected to see rain showers every day through Friday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration.
The rain, as well as the chance for a late surge of returning pinks, could deliver a welcome change in course for regional fishermen.
Gray said Friday that the pink salmon run for southern Southeast has nearly reached its halfway point. He said the northern reaches of the panhandle are a little further along run-wise.
Meanwhile, commercial fishing near Juneau and Petersburg areas and waters west of Prince of Wales Island have seen a recent uptick in pinks, Gray said. That late boost could indicate a later-than-usual run of pinks to the region, he said.
“Typically, we would be through (the run) by the end of August, but fingers crossed, maybe this thing will draw itself out a bit and help us out here.” he said.