Pinks and chums boost gillnet season
Bumper returns of pink and chum salmon, combined with the highest prices seen for those species in recent memory, are pumping up the paychecks of Lynn Canal gillnetters.
By mid-August, gillnetters in the canal had netted salmon worth $6.3 million. That compares to a harvest value of $6.2 million for the entire 2010 season, which was above average.
"And we’ve just barely started the fall season," said Randy Bachman, commercial fisheries biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
But late or low returns of sockeye to Lynn Canal remain a concern, particularly after seiners intercepted thousands of the lucrative reds, some bound for local rivers.
The canal’s pink salmon harvest exceeded 500,000 two weeks ago, a catch Bachman called "astronomical" compared to last year’s harvest of 171,000 and a 10-year average of 81,000.
Moreover, fishermen are making an average price of 33 cents a pound for humpies. Some buyers are paying 40 cents per pound. Pinks fetched just 24 cents per pound two years ago.
Area fish processors sometimes stop buying pink salmon by mid-August, but not this year. Demand – fired by successful marketing, product development and a voracious world appetite for fish – has elevated the once lowly humpy.
"The fish have value," said local skipper Norman Hughes. He hauled in 33,000 pounds of them during the past three weeks. "Pinks are no longer eight or 12 cents a pound. They add up."
The canal chum harvest of 1.05 million through mid-August ranks it the third highest in recent records, said biologist Bachman. The eight-pound fish are worth 89 cents a pound, up from 74 cents a pound at the end of last season.
Andy Wink, a seafood analyst with McDowell Group in Juneau, said several factors are pushing chum and pink prices, including a relatively high price for competing farmed salmon, and new products like salmon flakes that go into soups and rice bowls.
Pink salmon sold to China are reprocessed into products like glazed fillets, and sold to buyers in other countries, he said. Marketing has pushed the value of Alaska chum salmon to Lower 48 consumers looking for a healthy main course. "There’s a demand for Alaska wild salmon and they want to get in on it at a price point they’re comfortable with," Wink said. "Pinks and chum have definitely become something valuable."
About 20 years ago, hatchery chum were seen as a new income source for a local fleet that was once reliant on sockeye, the area’s top commercial species, with a per-fish value that’s still 10 times that of a pink salmon.
The relative predictability of hatchery-raised chum returns also was seen as a hedge against swings in the numbers of wild-run sockeye returning to local rivers. This week, it appeared that pinks were providing the hedge for a disappointing hatchery chum fishery at Sitka’s Deep Inlet, which typically attracts about 20 local boats.
"It’s one of those variables. I’m chasing pinks because I’m not sure there will be fish later on," said fisherman Hughes.
About a dozen gillnetters rallied at the local Fish and Game office two weeks ago, concerned that expanded fishing area allotted to the seine boat fleet to harvest pink salmon near Point Couverden had resulted in tens of thousands of intercepted sockeye, some bound for local rivers.
"Our concern is it’s an interception area," said skipper Steve Fossman. "We want to see is there any way we could work out – from a management standpoint – how to let those fish through. Is there anything we can do in the future, or is our fishery that expendable?"
Fossman said the fleet was also concerned that fall chum headed for the canal also might be intercepted by seiners.
Mark Sogge, a former commercial fisherman who now works as a stock assessment biologist for the state, met with gillnetters. "I said they should try to get someone in Fish and Game to tell them how many Chilkoot and Chilkat fish were harvested (there). If someone can’t get them that number, they should ask why."
Fisheries biologist Bachman said the row is a classic allocation battle between gear groups, which tend to get hotter when fish prices are high. He said the state forecast low sockeye returns to Chilkoot and Chilkat. Chilkoot has met escapement goals. Escapement to Chilkat has yet to peak, he said.
"Even with this gear conflict, they’ve had a pretty good season, I’d say," Bachman said. Hughes acknowledged that he’d surpassed his 2010 salmon income last week.
Statewide fisheries reporter Laine Welch reported in July that the value of Southeast gillnet permits was between $90,000 and $150,000, an increase of $30,000 from 2010.