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District 4 opens late to Southeast purse seiners: Limited catch of Canadian sockeye could cause major loss in pink salmon harvest

Daily News Staff Writer

Disasterous Canadian sockeye salmon stocks have delivered an unprecedented string of commercial fishing closures for Southeast Alaska purse seiners who largely target pinks in the outside waters west of Prince of Wales Island.

But Southeast seiners on Sunday will be allowed to drop their nets in those District 4 waters for first time this summer season, having already missed half of the eight potential “treaty period” openings allowed this year under the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty.

“It's very important for all involved to realize that this is a record number of closures,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Ketchikan Area Fishery Management Biologist Scott Walker said Thursday. “We've never not fished the first two weeks of the District 4 fishery — ever."

On Sunday, all of District 4 will be open from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., with an allowable Canadian sockeye catch of about 6,700 fish, in addition to about 4,300 Alaska reds, according to Fish and Game.

Per the Pacific Salmon Treaty, District 4 has been closed to Alaskan purse seiners to conserve sockeye originating from the Nass and Skeena rivers of Canada. The fish annually are abundant in District 4 waters during a defined “treaty period” that lasts through July 29 this year.

District 4 could have opened July 9, though poor preseason Nass and Skeena sockeye return estimates have continued to drop inseason as fishing progressed.

Initial estimates put the total Nass and Skeena sockeye return at slightly more than 1 million fish. As of Tuesday, the estimate dropped to about 775,000 fish, which allows for a catch of about 275,000 Canadian sockeye.

Alaska’s District 4 is allowed to land 2.45 percent of that number, giving Southeast seiners their 6,700 Canadian sockeye limit.

That’s “nothing,” Southeast Alaska Seiners Association Executive Director Susan Doherty said Friday. “It’s miniscule.”

The greater concern with the limit, Doherty explained, is that the district could again close to seining efforts before the treaty period ends, thereby cutting off efforts to land pinks.

In commercial fishing terms, Sunday marks the start of statistical week 29, during which Southeast seiners in District 4 land on average about 15,000 sockeyes and more than 200,000 pinks for the week, Doherty said.

She said the number of salmon landed the following week — statistical week 30, the final week before treaty-free fishing starts on July 30 for the district — grows to an average of about 24,700 sockeyes and 380,000 pinks.

Fish and Game’s website was down Friday, but based on recent state-provided fish weights and market values of pink salmon, just those 380,000 fish could be worth upwards of $500,000.

Closing District 4 before treaty-free fishing can start “has huge financial implications, and plus, District 4 spreads the fleet around,” Doherty said. “You don’t want all of the seiners in one spot. Thank goodness the north end opened up and there’s been some good pink and chum catches.”