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Forecast: Salmon returns to favor S. Southeast: But a lopsided return might not be all positive for local fishermen

Daily News Staff Writer

Southern Southeast Alaska can expect to host a strong majority of Southeast Alaska’s commercial fishing for salmon next year. But for locals involved in the industry, this might not be a good thing.

 At this week’s purse seine and gillnet task force meetings in Ketchikan, commercial fishery biologists and area managers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasted that about 75 percent of Southeast Alaska’s fishing will go on in the southern Southeast area.

 The prediction is based on pink and chum salmon’s high parent year escapement in the region, and low returns in the north.

 Purse seining, a type of net fishing, is expected to be responsible for the majority of the harvest in the area because it catches so many of these species.

 While this uneven distribution might sound like a benefit for local seiners, experts say it can be a serious problem.

 "It has a huge effect,” said Scott Walker, the department’s area management biologist for the Ketchikan area. “It affects everybody. The way that our fishery was historically set up is that there are districts that are open from here all the way to Sitka, and that the entire fleet is spread out so that everybody gets to share in the fish and everybody gets a nice slice of the pie.

 “But if the fishery is poor on the north end, then you have less of the pie already,” Walker said. “And then the local fleet here has to share their slice of the pie with everybody that comes down from the top end.”

 Fishing with too many boats in too small an area doesn’t just limit harvests — it can impact the populations of specific groups of fish that area managers want to protect. For example, even if chum salmon levels in a popular fishing area are high, the department may have to close it because too many fish of a restricted species are being unintentionally caught.

 “That makes it really difficult — it means that boats may be tied up a lot of the season if it isn’t spread out,” said Sue Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association.

 But while the forecast doesn’t look good for local fishermen, especially seiners, it might benefit other members of the region’s communities. Due to the influx of boats, towns like Ketchikan will sell more gas, more groceries and supplies, and rent out more harbor space.

 And because fishermen typically sell their fish to a single, pre-established processor, rather than whichever ones are closest to the fish, processors across Southeast Alaska won’t necessarily suffer from local shortages.

 As Doherty notes, however, a forecast is only a forecast.

 “That preseason forecast is what everybody bases how things are going to look at the start on. It’s been fairly accurate in recent years, but there are a lot of unknowns that went into this forecast,” she said.

 Walker adds that while we might be able to predict one element of the future, like the presence of one kind of fish, its greater effect when combined with many other unknowns is anyone’s guess.

 “There are dozens of scenarios that can play out,” Walker said. “We might know the effect of each one, but we don’t really know how it will all play out.”

The Department of Fish and Game forecasts a harvest of 23 million pink salmon in Southeast Alaska for 2018, with an 80 percent confidence interval of 3 million to 44 million fish. This number falls within the “average” range according to the forecast. Pink salmon are the only salmon species that the department makes harvest forecasts for in Southeast Alaska.