December 8, 2011 |

In bumper year, fleet frets about wild runs' fate

Gillnet fishermen in Lynn Canal harvested salmon worth $9.38 million in 2011, with nearly 80 percent of the catch value coming from hatchery-raised chum.

Fishermen netted 1.11 million chum, a new record, topping bumper returns in 2008 (1.07 million) and in 2006 (1.09 million). A strong price – 85 cents per pound – helped make the season for the fishermen.

High prices and thick returns of pink salmon also helped fishermen, but the local fleet faced more competition from gillnetters from other parts of Southeast, and ended the season with concerns about the health of wild sockeye stocks and management they blame for lost fishing time – and money.

Canal gillnetters netted 63,793 sockeye this year. The harvest has averaged 112,000 sockeye annually during the past 10 years. Also, for the second consecutive year, red returns to Chilkat Lake fell short of the state’s escapement goals. Biologists say numbers of reds entering Chilkat Lake dropped in late August, just when they were expected to be peaking.

"From a financial standpoint, I think most people would consider it a success, but our concerns are more about the sustainability of our local wild runs," said Jason Shull, president of Lynn Canal Gillnetters. "It’s more about not losing sight of the wild stocks just because we have a hatchery income. If any of us really want to sustain our livelihood, we need to get fish into the rivers."

Shull was attending a regional gillnet meeting this week between fishermen and biologists, where the season was to be discussed.

Among concerns for the fleet is management of the seine fishery, which some believe intercepted Haines-bound wild sockeye. As good as it was, fishing on hatchery chums was limited to prevent gillnetters from intercepting wild sockeye, protecting expected low numbers of sockeye, the area’s most lucrative salmon.

But gillnetters suspect seiners at the entrance of Lynn Canal were scooping up those very fish. Seiners – whose fishery targets pink salmon – caught around 180,000 sockeye near Icy Strait. In addition, about $8 million in hatchery chum couldn’t be fished on by canal gillnetters due to regulatory closures aimed at sockeye conservation, fishermen said this week.

"A main goal is to raise awareness, so everybody’s got their eyes on the same resources that may be in trouble" including biologists who manage the seine fishery, Shull said.

Reaching escapement goals on both the Chilkat and Chilkoot runs is a "starting point," for the gillnet group, Shull said. Hatchery fish should supplement local gillnetters’ income, not anchor it, he said. "On any given year it seems we aren’t going to make escapement goals on one side or another."

Randy Bachman, commercial fisheries biologist for Fish and Game in Haines, acknowledged that sockeye run numbers since the 1970s suggest a reciprocal relationship between Chilkoot and Chilkat sockeye runs – one tanking when the other surges – that the state can’t explain.

Chilkoot and Chilkat lakes, where the majority of local sockeye spawn, are very different, he said. Reds in the lakes feed on different types of plankton, he said. In addition, Chilkat has clearer water and gets more sunlight, and generally recovers faster to disruptions in productivity.

Bachman said more information is needed on a decline in rearing conditions in Chilkoot Lake during the past several decades. The state will make a smolt-count study next spring aimed at proofing its annual, hydro-acoustic estimate of juvenile reds leaving the lake.

"A lot of what we’re doing needs to be tested to see if it’s accurate," he said.

Warm summers in 2005-07 also are suspected of clouding Chilkoot with sedimentation, which reduces growth of phytoplankton young sockeye feed on there. At Chilkat Lake, an egg-plant project in the 1990s that has since been discontinued may have overtaxed the lake’s food supply.

Commercial fishermen – including state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines – want to know how many of the seine fleet’s 180,000 sockeye were headed toward Haines. Thomas is hoping to secure money to take genetic samples of seine-caught sockeye in the future. "Fish and Game made a mistake this year. We’ve got to hope that doesn’t happen again. We’ve got to get them more money to do a better job," he said.

Thomas also said he’s seeking money to rebuild spawning channels for wild chum. "I’m trying to get the chum run to produce what it used to."

Improved marketing, new salmon products, Lower 48 sales and problems with farmed fish are credited with pushing up chum prices more than a dime per pound this year and pink prices as much as 15 cents per pound. Sockeye and coho prices were about even with 2010.

Year-end, per-pound prices to gillnetters included $1.70 for sockeye, $1.35 for coho, 40 cents for pinks and 85 cents for chum. By species, the harvest value included $7.4 million in chum, $875,380 in pinks, $715,757 in sockeye and $387,315 in coho.

A total of 220 gillnet boats fished Lynn Canal this year, up from a 10-year average of 148 boats. Part of the reason was that returns from hatchery releases that typically draw boats to Baranof Island’s Deep Inlet and Hidden Falls never materialized, said Fish and Game’s Bachman. "Everyone else didn’t have the chum and pink numbers we did."

"There were nets everywhere," said fisherman Norm Hughes. "I had one of my best seasons ever, but it could have been the best season ever if we had access to more fish."

A total of 1,723,796 salmon were caught by commercial gillnetters in the local fishing district.

The health of the valley’s wild salmon runs was a concern at a recent meeting of the Upper Lynn Canal Advisory Committee to the boards of Fish and Game. Some members were critical of the state’s use of 10-year averages as a gauge of run strength.

They said runs should be compared to ones with higher numbers of fish dating back two decades or more.

The Haines Borough Assembly in November introduced an ordinance to spend up to $15,000 for a study aimed at improving sockeye escapement to Chilkoot and Chilkat lakes.