Wild pink salmon came in stronger than expected

Scannell: We made pink salmon escapement in all districts

Prince William Sound’s 2021 commercial salmon fishery proved challenging in the midst of a second year of the global novel coronavirus pandemic and increasing climate change, with harvesters delivering nearly 70 million salmon valued at an estimated $121.49 million.

That added up to almost $72 million more than the value of last year’s commercial harvest of 25.5 million fish, according to preliminary state fisheries summaries.

Humpy returns were the big surprise.

“When all the numbers come in, it is looking like the second largest wild stock run since 2000,” said Heather Scannell, who produced the preliminary Prince William Sound salmon season summary with fellow finfish area management biologist Jeremy Botz, both stationed in Cordova, for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“We made pink salmon escapement in all districts and all the hatcheries got their cost recovery and brood stock,” Scannell said.

Everyone came into the season a little bit skeptical because 2019 was such a poor year, but they perked up when they realized what they were seeing, Scannell said, of the odd year pink salmon run.

“They were skeptical because of escape conditions in 2019, when there was a drought. It was assumed there was significant pre-spawn mortality, but it (drought) did not impact the return,” she said.

The preliminary season summary, issued Nov. 5 by ADF&G, put the total harvest, including commercial and hatchery harvests, at 69.86 million salmon, including some 8,500 Chinook, 1.32 million sockeye, 253,300 coho, 65.61 million pink and 2,67 million chum salmon. Of that total 62.10 million fish, or 89% were taken by the commercial fishermen. The other 11%, or 7.76 million fish, were from hatchery cost recovery fisheries and broodstock collection.

Salmon spawned in 2021 will go into Prince William Sound in the spring of 2022, then to the Gulf of Alaska, and return in 2023 to spawn in Prince William Sound. Changing ocean conditions, from temperatures to acidification, will play a role in the fate of that spawn.

The challenges presented by climate change and a worldwide pandemic aside, demand for salmon has remained robust, boosting prices dockside for harvesters and market prices for consumers. Statewide the catch, with a preliminary estimate of 234 million salmon, had a dockside value of nearly $644 million, and that doesn’t include bonuses still to come from processors.

The preseason 2021 forecast had indicated average to below average runs, and commercial harvests of Chinook and sockeyes came in even lower than forecast. The total run forecast for the Copper River was 37,000 kings and 1.35 million red salmon, including a forecast of 51,000 reds to the Gulkana hatchery. These resulted in preseason harvest forecasts of 13,000 kings and 652,000 sockeyes for the Copper River District commercial fishery. The actual Copper River sockeye salmon run came in well below average, with little fishing opportunity the first month of the fishery and the ninth smallest commercial harvest in the past 50 years, the ADF&G preliminary report noted. The sockeye commercial harvest of 397,700 fish was 68% less than the 10-year average harvest of 1.25 million fish.

The sockeye season itself was open for just 540 hours, down from 648 hours fished in 2019 and the sockeyes were small, averaging 5.3 pounds, or 0.6 pounds smaller than the 30-year average of 5.9 pounds, the report said.

Veteran drift gillnetter Bill Webber Jr. of Cordova said he had an okay summer and got a better price, but said that was in part because he has total control of the fish, which he processes quickly after harvesting on his boat.

It is the timing,” he said. “We catch them, and we are processing them immediately. We put them down in layered ice before they even go into rigor mortis. This (2022) will be my 55th year, but I integrated into this business model 20 years ago.”

He credits his special bleeding process with delivering “a much cleaner taste of the fish.”

Webber said some gillnetters had a really good season in Prince William Sound with the sockeye and chum harvest, but not so in the Copper River.

“There is so much wrong with the way the fishery is being managed and the way fish is being taken out of the water,” he said.

A basic issue, Webber said, is that ADF&G has separate divisions for commercial fishing and sport fishing and they have different mission statements.

“We have to put the resource first and keep the politics out of it,” he said. “The state claims to be the best, well-managed fishery in the world and I’m not so sure I can embrace that. I don’t think it is working that well anymore.”

“There needs to be accountability of all user groups and comfish is the only one held accountable,” he said. “Commercial harvesters are the only group held accountable for reporting their take within 24 hours after coming out of the water. The others can elect to report at the end of the year, and they always take more than they are allowed.”

Still Webber said with the fishery now well beyond the last hot blob in the Gulf of Alaska that he is hopeful the next two years will see better survival rates and better returns.

The 2021 Prince William Sound pink and chum salmon escapement estimate were not yet available when the preliminary report was released, but Scannell said they were met for pinks in all districts. The pink salmon total run forecast for Prince William Sound was 57.38 million fish, including 20.59 million Valdez Fishery Development Association hatchery fish, 17.60 million Prince William Sound Aquaculture corp. hatchery fish and 19.19 million wild fish, with the 2019 drought not factored into wild fish forecasts, ADF&G biologists noted. Subsequent actual runs were at or well above forecasts.

Final season summaries are expected to be out soon, Scannell said.