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By SCOTT BOWLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
The state is forecasting a robust harvest of approximately 54 million pink salmon in Southeast Alaska during the 2013 commercial fishing season.
The forecast issued this week by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is based on harvest trends adjusted by data of juvenile pink salmon abundance collected in the upper Chatham and Icy straits area during 2012 by the NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Juneau.
Fish and Game has an 80-percent "confidence interval" in the harvest forecast, giving the catch prediction a range of between 42 million and 67 million pink salmon.
A harvest of 54 million pink salmon in Southeast Alaska would be a marked improvement over the 2012 season, when commercial harvesters landed about 20.7 million pinks with a total value to fishermen of about $29.9 million, according to department data.
It also would be substantially higher that the 10-year average annual harvest of 37 million pinks in Southeast — although it’s closer to the average catches of approximately 50.7 million pink salmon during the past five odd-numbered years.
The odd-year comparison is of particular interest because pink salmon have a two-year life cycle. For example, the pinks that will return in 2013 were spawned in 2011.
The 2011 season was extraordinary.
Commercial harvesters landed a total of 59 million pink salmon valued at $102.2 million in Southeast Alaska during the 2011 season, according to department information.
Fishermen set catch records for pink salmon in the northern districts that year. By mid September 2011, commercial seine fishermen had landed 45.5 million pinks from the northern districts. They landed only 9.9 million pinks in southern Southeast Alaska during that time
The department’s 2011 goals for escapements — the amount of fish that reach their spawning streams — were "met or exceeded" for 44 of the 46 pink salmon stock groups that the department tracks throughout the region.
"The escapements in 2011 were excellent, pretty much everywhere in Southeast Alaska," said Andy Piston, the department’s pink and chum salmon project leader. "We had extremely strong returns in northern Southeast, all along the outer coast and inside waters was well. Southern Southeast was mostly very good. ... It was about the best escapements we’ve seen in recent memory."
Fish and Game’s forecasts have been helped greatly during in recent years by data collected by NOAA Fisheries Auke Bay Laboratories by trawl surveys that gather samples of juvenile salmon and other data monthly (May, June, July and August) in Icy and Chatham straits.
The data is comparable to a snapshot of what’s happening with the salmon in the ocean environment, providing the department with more information than escapements and past harvest trends.
"It’s made just all the difference in the world for the pink salmon forecast," Piston said. "We’ve started using their data in 2007 and every forecast since then has been pretty close to the actual harvest."
Still, a forecast cannot account for every or even most circumstances that the fish actually encounter during their life cycle. That’s why the department will continue to manage the fisheries based upon how the fish return.
"No matter what our forecast is, it’s still managed the same way," Piston said.
Department fishery managers spend a lot of time flying during the season to observe how the runs are developing and whether it appears that there’s adequate escapement .
"That’s how they base what gets opened for the most part during the pink salmon season," Piston said. "That just ensures, if our forecast is wrong, ... we'll still manage everything to ensure we meet our escapement goals and everything is done in a sustainable fashion."
While Fish and Game does provide a region-wide forecast of pink salmon harvests, it doesn’t have a good method for predicting whether the runs might be stronger or weaker in a particular area of Southeast Alaska.
Piston and Steve Heinl, a regional research biologist with Fish and Game, noted that escapements were solid throughout Southeast Alaska in 2011.
While the runs were especially strong in northern Southeast Alaska that year, there have been other years when the harvests were much stronger in southern Southeast compared to northern Southeast. That includes this year, when seiners harvested about 17.3 million pinks in the southern districts, but only about 1.67 million from the northern districts.
"It goes both ways," Heinl said. "No one really has a good way to forecast what the split is going to be between north and south."