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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
2018 was a historically bad year for Southeast Alaska’s commercial net fisheries, with catches falling far below those of recent years.
The reason, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, was generally poor salmon returns to the region, particularly for pink salmon.
Seiners caught about 12.2 million salmon this season — a fraction of the 20-year average of 44.5 million, according to preliminary data from Fish and Game. (Those numbers exclude harvests at Annette Island and cost recovery harvests by hatcheries).
Seiners were hit especially hard by regionwide issues with pink salmon population, which typically make up the majority of seine harvests.
“There just weren’t very many pinks that returned,” Fish and Game’s Ketchikan area management biologist Scott Walker said last week.
Many seiners’ harvests were supplemented by higher-than-average chum salmon hatchery returns.
“If it wasn’t for the chum, you’d have a bunch of bankrupt fishermen,” said Susan Doherty, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association.
Those hatchery chum returns included that of the NSRAA-operated Crawfish Inlet hatchery near Sitka, which received many times its estimated return. The phenomenon yielded millions of pounds of chum for seiners.
Doherty added that stable chum prices helped too, but that it was still a poor year overall.
Southeast Alaska gillnetters caught about 3.5 million salmon this season, compared to a 20-year average of 4.47 million salmon, according to preliminary numbers from Fish and Game. Gillnet harvests were at their lowest since 2002.
United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association Executive Director Max Worhatch attributed the low harvest to generally poor Southeast Alaska salmon returns across the board, particularly for pink salmon.
“You gotta have volume,” Worhatch said. “And we just didn’t have it. It just wasn’t there, the pink run being as weak as it was.”
Gillnetters were spared some of the pink-salmon-related difficulties that seiners experienced because gillnetters rely less on pink salmon than seiners do. Pinks make up only about 20 percent of overall gillnet harvests. And Worhatch said that gillnetters, like seiners, also benefited from good salmon prices.
But unlike seiners, gillnetters were unable to cash in on the Crawfish Inlet chum returns because of Fish and Game regulations. Worhatch said that given seiners’ disastrous year, gillnetters were happy to see them harvest the chums.
“As poor as our season was, their season was much poorer,” Worhatch said. “And it was a real benefit to their fleet. And we know that someday we will be able to get in there, and we’d like to share in that.”
As for this year’s salmon escapement, Fish and Game research biologist Andy Piston said that Southeast Alaska saw mixed results. Escapement is the amount of returning fish that escape being harvested and return to their streams to spawn.
Pink salmon escapement in northern Southeast Alaska's inside waters was generally very poor, while the northern Southeast’s outer coast was generally good. Escapements to southern Southeast varied but were generally average, Piston said.
As far as what those returns mean for 2020 (the next even year in pink salmon’s odd-even reproduction cycle), Piston said it’s important to keep something in mind: The relationship between escapement levels and returns two years later is tenuous. Returns are generally hard to predict based off of escapement. However, if escapement is very, very poor, low returns are likely.
Piston said that escapements in northern Southeast’s inside waters were poor enough to suggest that returns will likely also be poor in two years.
“In a lot of areas, it’s getting down into historic low levels that you’re very unlikely to get a large return off of,” Piston said. “... So it kind of exacerbates the situation there. And it’s probably going to be very difficult to get out of that cycle.”
In the other two subregions, escapement levels were such that returns are hard to predict based on escapement alone.
As for chum salmon escapement, escapement levels were great in southern Southeast, mixed/adequate in northern Southeast inside, and slightly below goal for northern Southeast outside waters, Piston said.
Piston said that the escapement-return relationship is complicated for chums as well, because returning chums can be three, or four or five years old. That means that the effects of a given year’s escapement will spread out over a few years.
In other news, Southeast Alaska’s 2018-19 commercial winter troll fishery opened at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday. The fishery is scheduled to run through March 15 or until trollers harvest 45,000 treaty chinook — whichever comes first.