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By SAM ALLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
To the start of this week, Southeast Alaska fishermen have harvested less than comparable-year returns in all five salmon species — this is according to information compiled by McDowell Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Through Sunday, about 12.4 million more pink salmon — a two-year life cycle fish — were caught in 2017 than have been harvested so far this year in Southeast.
The pink salmon run passed its historical halfway mark last week and Susan Doherty of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association thinks the group's fishermen around Ketchikan have a shot at attaining the forecasted harvest, which she said isn't very much to begin with.
Bo Meredith, the Ketchikan area commercial fisheries management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says the pink run will probably come in just under forecasts for the southern Southeast area.
Max Worhatch, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association, called the pink salmon runs in southern Southeast "a bright spot" for pink salmon in Southeast Alaska during "a very poor year," noting it's below the 10-year average.
Statewide, pink salmon are down about a third, and nearly 60% throughout all of Southeast Alaska compared to 2017, according to ASMI information.
Meredith says that northern Southeast has had poor pink returns. He said on either side of Petersburg you could almost draw a line between decent and poorer returns.
While pink runs in the Sitka area have been weak, with a few bright spots, inland areas around Juneau have been very low, according to Dave Harris, Juneau area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"It doesn't bode well for the next several cycles going forward," said Harris, "If everything lines out good it would take until 2023 to have a real boomer year to get back on track."
This comes after a dismal enhanced chum salmon run in which all three salmon hatchery organizations in Southeast Alaska came in at least 50% under forecast so far. Possible fall chum runs are still ahead, but Meredith doesn't foresee a bump in harvests, like last year.
Doherty, Meredith and Worhatch called the hatchery chum runs a failure.
The Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association and the Douglas Island Pink and Chum Inc., have struggled to meet chum broodstock needs.
Exacerbating the hardship on hatcheries and fishermen alike are the falling prices of chum and pink salmon.
Doherty called it "unprecedented" that every association in the Southeast would have poor returns. She said several places, including Neets Bay, just north of Ketchikan, are just a total run failure.
"The double whammy with the lack of chum and then also the price differential between last year and this year is challenging for fishermen," Doherty said.
The ex-vessel price of pinks plummeted from 90 cents per pound last year to around 54 cents per pound this year, according Doherty.
For example, last year the seiners harvested just under 7 million pinks, but had a chum harvest of 5 million to balance out fishermen incomes. This year seiners will have more than 7 million pinks, but the price is too low to overcome a chum harvest of around 1.5 million fish, according to Doherty.
The effects on the fishermen are undeniable.
She said some of the fisherman have long-term loans on permits and for the boats.
"Some of these guys will be lucky to pay their fuel bill," said Doherty who says that the just to get to the fishing grounds can be $20,000 to $30,000 a summer.
"So yeah, it's not going to be a good year," she said.
The poor returns in chum have hurt the gillnetters as well.
Chris Guggenbickler, president of the Southeast Gillnetters Association based in Wrangell, said around 70% of the gillnet catch is enhanced salmon — primarily chum salmon.
"It's had a huge effect," Guggenbickler said of the slow season, " So we've had below average returns coupled with a price that's, a third less than we were getting last year. There's going to be some guys that are really, really hurt after the season."
While some gillnetters diversify and fish for shrimp in October or run other gear types, Guggenbickler says it's going to be tough for the "young guys" starting out who haven't acquired all those licenses and gear.
"So when you take 70% of your value and it comes in at 50%, and then you knock another third off of the top of that, you could see the, the economic effect it's going to have on the fleet as a whole," Guggenbickler said.
As far as the decrease in prices, Guggenbickler sees two contributing factors.
"One is the tariffs and the other would be a large prediction for chum salmon in Southeast that didn't materialize," said Guggenbickler. "And a lot of these processors have tenders on contract with no fish to process. So they're paying for a boat to buy fish that aren't there. And so the overhead goes up for the processor."
On this topic, Harris said that final fishing prices won't be known until the winter, saying that fish processors in the past have provided retroactive payments to fishermen based on changing market conditions.
The reasons behind the low returns have been the topic of much speculation.
Guggenbickler said the chum season was hindered by lack of rain and warm water temperatures.
"Those fish were also hard to catch because they laid down in deep water and they didn't really home in on water sources because there wasn't a lot of fresh water, and the surface water temps were so warm."
Moving forward, Guggenbickler is concerned about the changes in the runs.
"I am more nervous every year," said Guggenbickler, "with the changing ocean conditions, warm water that we're dealing with and these drought situations.”
While gillnetters don't target as many pinks as the seiners, Worhatch said that people might start targeting pinks because everything else is so poor.
He said the season has been rough due to hatchery failures, noting that the inside waters in Southeast Alaska have been extremely warm all summer. He said the sockeye salmon were decent though.
"The next 10 days it’s important to get some rain so fish can get in the creeks and the fish that are in there can successfully spawn," said Worhatch.
After the pinks there's a fall chum run in Sitka that gillnetters will be targeting, and a coho run as well.
He said the outlook for silvers isn't very bright either. Initial reports from trollers on the coast aren't fortuitous.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the season ended rather early here," said Worhatch.
"All they can do is put fish in the streams," added Worhatch, "and you know, hope they come out and hope they come back, but it’s all kind of at the mercy of mother nature."