A hatchery chum harvest nearly 50 percent larger than last year’s record combined with the largest sockeye catch in 20 years propelled the value of the Lynn Canal drift gillnet fishery to $15.4 million in 2012.
That made the local commercial fishing season among the most lucrative in the past 30 years.
“It was a big year this year. There were lots of records,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Randy Bachman.
For the fourth consecutive year, the value of the fishery grew significantly, leaping from less than $10 million last year, and tripling from about $5 million in 2009. Per pound prices remained on par with 2011, averaging 80 cents for chum, $1.46 for sockeye, 35 cents for pinks, and $1.29 for coho.
“Things look pretty good,” said gillnetter Steve Fossman, who has seen ups and downs in the fishery since starting as a skipper here in 1980. New markets for fish and activism within the fleet for monitoring fishery management make him optimistic, he said.
Concerns include resurgence of farmed salmon operations that glut markets and depress prices, as well as the fate of the valley’s wild stocks, Fossman said. “It’s healthy to be concerned about the wild stocks. It’s easy when hatchery returns are strong and the price is up to lose sight of what’s happening to them.”
The Lynn Canal salmon harvest of 2,171,160 fish was the highest since the state started keeping local records in 1960. Nearly three-fourths of those were chum salmon reared by the Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC) hatchery in Juneau and harvested in the lower canal.
Norman Hughes, a local fisherman and member of the DIPAC board, said keeping chum at the hatchery longer and releasing them in smaller batches have increased ocean survival the past few years. This year’s chum harvest of 1.56 million compares to a harvest of 1.1 million in 2011 and a 10-year average harvest of 785,000.
In terms of total harvest, the “heyday” of gillnetting here in the 1980s saw season catches reach just more than 1 million salmon. “We had good returns all over,” said Hughes.
The chum numbers drew 239 different boats to the canal during the summer, about 30 more than typically show up here, and the highest numbers to participate since 1990. “They came from all over Southeast. Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka. We had a boat all the way up from Metlakatla,” Bachman said.
Over the course of the 16-week season, an average of 109 boats participated.
That meant more competition for the local fleet, but just as numbers of boats fishing chum here peaked in late July, an unexpected surge of sockeye arrived in Chilkoot Inlet. More than 35,000 reds passed through Chilkoot weir in a single week that also saw a harvest of 43,000 fish. More than 12,000 passed through the weir in a single day, July 20, breaking a record for single-day escapement of 11,000 set in 1976.
In the ensuing two weeks, more than 100,000 sockeye were caught. “It attracted a few boats, but not a lot. The chum fishing was pretty hot,” Bachman said. “But the guys who did come up to catch sockeye did really well.”
Chilkoot Lake saw a final escapement of 114,000 reds, well above the top of the escapement goals of 86,000. That created some fears that overfeeding by juvenile fish will “crash” levels of zooplankton fish food in the lake.
“We’ll find out,” said biologist Bachman. “We caught a lot of them. You hope you don’t tax the lake too but, but if we have cooler summers, we’ll probably be fine.”
Restrictions on gillnetting in Chilkat Inlet to protect projected low king salmon returns in the spring and low coho returns in the fall may have helped boost escapement of Chilkat Lake sockeye. After years of just barely reaching a minimum escapement goal of 75,000 reds, 106,000 returned there this year.
Escapement of Chilkat fish that return to spawn in Chilkat River, called “mainstem” fish, hit 49,000, the highest number since 2005.
Fall catches of chum salmon totaled 81,200, nearly half again the 10-year average. A harvest of 353,000 pink salmon was the second highest on record, according to biologist Bachman. The pink catch peaked last year at 508,000.
Coho numbers were weak, with a harvest of 23,321 comparing to a 14-year average of 43,210. Area closures protecting coho curtailed commercial catches in the final weeks of the fishery.
An above-average return of Chilkat sockeye and an average one at Chilkoot Lake are forecast for 2013.