June 13, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 23

Gillnetters expecting leaner season

Haines commercial fishermen say they’re expecting a dip in chum salmon prices this year and also say they’ll be watching for interception of Haines-bound sockeye by seine fishermen in northern Southeast, as biologists are forecasting a strong return of pink salmon.

The Lynn Canal drift gillnet season starts Sunday with a two-day opening in districts south of Seduction Point. Last season’s harvest was worth about $15 million, fueled largely by record catches of hatchery-raised chum salmon.

“I don’t think anybody expects it will be as good as last year,” said Brian O’Riley, a gillnetter and Alaska commercial fisherman since 1975. “With the seine fishery there, that’ll cut into our catch. That’s going to affect everything.”

O’Riley and other gillnetters say they expect the price paid to them for chum salmon to drop to about 65 cents per pound, from an average 80 cents at the end of last season. The dip is attributed to a devalued Japanese yen. A $5 per pound jump in the value of chum eggs on world markets last year helped prop up the value of the fish as prices for chum flesh dropped.

A record harvest of 1.56 million chum – plus strong catches of wild sockeye – made last year’s season one of the best in decades for area gillnetters.

Whether sockeye catches can make up for the anticipated drop in chum prices was difficult to predict this week. Lifetime fisherman Sonny Williams said he was encouraged by an early price of $4 per pound for Copper River sockeye. Historically, the value of Lynn Canal sockeye is about half the amount paid there, Williams said. Last season, sockeye prices here averaged $1.46 per pound.

Processors say demand for sockeye is high, including from Europe, Japan and domestic buyers such as Costco. But the probability of a price increase – and how much opportunity the fleet will get to harvest sockeye – is a big unknown.

The forecast return of sockeye isn’t encouraging. In 2008, the parent year of this year’s returning sockeye, state fishery managers missed reaching escapement goals when only 33,000 made it into Chilkoot Lake. (The state aims to return between 38,000 and 86,000 fish into Chilkoot). At 72,000, the parent year sockeye return to Chilkat Lake just met the 70,000 fish threshold at the lower end of the state’s escapement goal.

As of Tuesday, only 13 sockeye had passed Chilkoot River weir. On the Chilkat River, fish wheels have averaged catches of about six sockeye per day, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Randy Bachman.

Bachman said he would be managing the fishery conservatively to protect Chilkoot-bound sockeye.

In 2011, local commercial fishermen assailed Fish and Game’s management for allowing liberal management of seine fishing on pink salmon – and interception of local sockeye in seine nets – at a time when they were facing closures to protect sockeye returns.

Biologist Bachman said similar factors will likely arise this season. “I think we’re going to be in exactly the same situation, in terms of the pink level.”

Bachman, however, voiced optimism that a balance could be struck. “If things aren’t looking rosey for Chilkoot and Chilkat, that’s going to be monitored. Limits are being put in place. We’ll take steps and be in communication with (fishery) managers in southern areas to conserve fish and still allow harvest of surplus pinks.”

Gillnetter Jason Shull, who led a push by local fishermen in 2011 to investigate management of the seine fishery and the intercept of local fish, this week said he was hopeful Fish and Game would take the local fleet’s concerns into account.

“I know we had a loud enough voice – in how we presented our concerns to them – that that will still be ringing in their ears this year when they make their (management) decisions. From that standpoint, I think we served our purpose,” Shull said.

Taking a break from working on his boat this week, skipper O’Riley was philosophical about fish prices. “I can’t complain too much about 60 cents a pound for chum. It’s a hell of a lot better than 12-cent chum we were getting not that long ago. We’re also getting more volume (of chums).”

What he dislikes, he said, was the crush of boats to the region likely to come with a big pink return and the hatchery-chum fishery, which has attracted gillnetters from central Southeast to Lynn Canal for almost a decade.

“If I had my big boat going, I think I’d be going (to fish) south, just to escape this mess,” he said.