The overall chum harvest for Southeast Alaska hatcheries has been significantly lower this year, leading to poor cost recovery and a struggle to meet broodstock goals.
Statewide, the chum return is about 50% below projected harvests, according to figures from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. In Southeast, it's even lower.
In Ketchikan, Dave Landis, general manager of the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, said in an interview Aug. 30 that chum returns were at least 75% less than projected across all its hatchery sites.
This translates into just over a million fish instead of their projected 4 million, according to Landis.
This made it difficult for SSRAA to meet its broodstock goal to sustain its fish stock. It also created about a $7 million hole from suspended cost recovery in Neets Bay alone.
He said this wouldn't affect staffing, as the association does have reserves and other options it can utilize.
Landis said that SSRAA is reducing expenses on capital projects, requesting a delay of repayment for outstanding loans to the Department of Commerce, and expanding cost recovery.
"We had intended on having those fishing opportunities for the gear groups," said Landis, speaking about the fall chum run. "However, we won't be able to do that because we didn't make our cost recovery goal in the summer chums. So, we'll have to take all of those fish — as many as we can for cost recovery during September."
Landis said in an interview in mid-August, "We're getting just down to the very, very bottom of the barrel, as far as the fish go — the fish available for brood stock, and, we've just been battling it all summer long."
Earlier in the season, SSRAA closed commercial limited-entry permit fishing in its traditional harvest areas and even suspended its own cost-recovery efforts so it could use all the available chum for broodstock.
The hatchery up near Juneau, Douglas Island Pink and Chum, also struggled to meet its chum egg take goal of 135 million eggs.
They were successful with the help of Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which saw better chum returns than the other two hatchery organizations in Southeast Alaska. NSRAA has supplied DIPAC with 10 million eggs from the Hidden Falls hatchery.
For DIPAC, the total harvest to date was just over 3 million pounds of chum salmon, which is well below its goal of 6 million pounds.
Because of suspended cost recovery efforts, the non-profit hatchery association near Juneau has a $2 million budget shortfall over last year. Eric Prestegard, executive director of DIPAC, said that they would dip into reserves or look at delaying some capital projects in response.
Landis said that DIPAC and NSRAA's fish share a common ancestor broodstock so they're able to exchange eggs, however the stock in southern Southeast Alaska is separate, so SSRAA wouldn't be able to rely on eggs from NSRAA or DIPAC.
The hatcheries near Ketchikan relied on techniques and strategies they've never fully used before, according to Landis.
SSRRA harvested about 7,000 fish in Anita Bay, near Wrangell, and transported them live to its hatchery in Burnett Inlet.
Landis said that it was a good thing SSRAA did that, because they barely met their broodstock goal of 210 million eggs.
"Those were some of the very last fish that we're able to round out our final number," said Landis.
He said workers pumped the fish from the saltwater hold of the boat into the freshwater of the hatchery raceways and then harvested those eggs, to see if they could do it. Then they continued to transport live adults into the net pens, which were subsequently pumped in to the raceways.
"So, we didn't have to take eggs from saltwater, which contributed to a high egg survival," said Landis.
"But nevertheless that was an experimental, untried technique that we had a proof of concept that worked, and we'll certainly be able to utilize that in the future," said Landis.
However, he recognized that it's not as high a volume of egg take as if the fish naturally swam up into the raceways.
He said that the eggs will start hatching in December and January as a "sac fry."
"They have a sack of egg yolk that they have on their bodies and they gradually use that as their food," said Landis. "Once those eggs sacks are reabsorbed as food they're ready to be put into saltwater."
The stock is transported to net pens in front of the hatcheries at Burnett Inlet or Neets Bay in late January and February, where they will grow and then be released in the early spring, according to Landis. They typically come back in three to four years.
This summer, however, many of those four-year olds from previous hatchery operations failed to show up as expected, according to Landis and Prestegard.