Drop in chum price, harvest dampens gillnet year
Reports of record salmon harvests don’t extend to Haines.
Lynn Canal gillnetters hauled in fish worth $9.28 million in 2013, down from about $15 million last year, a drop attributed to reduced prices for fish and a smaller harvest.
The harvest value roughly matches that of 2011. Fishing ended Oct. 9.
Canal fishermen caught 1.8 million salmon, compared to 2.17 million fish in 2012, a difference that included fewer numbers of chums, the species that drives the fishery and accounted for $7 million of this year’s harvest value.
“Gillnetters didn’t have a good year this year, I don’t think,” said 30-year skipper Brian O’Riley. “The seine fleet is fishing in front of us now. DIPAC (hatchery) has given seiners free reign in front of us and our catch is down because of it.”
The gillnet harvest breaks down to 86 percent chums, 6 percent sockeye, 4 percent pinks and 4 percent coho salmon.
Chum harvests dropped to 1.5 million fish, down from 1.57 million harvested in 2012. Hatchery-raised fish account for 98 percent of the catch. Fishermen paid about 85 cents per pound for chum last year saw that drop to 60 cents in 2013.
The drop was a setback to the fleet, boosted by about a decade of marketing efforts that increased the value of the fish, including by selling chum as wild, Alaska salmon in the Lower 48.
“It’s maddening. The roe market’s strong. There’s such a demand for salmon flesh. We’ve made a bunch of good markets. As far as the reading I’ve done, there’s no reason the price should have been lower,” said Cynde Adams, secretary-treasurer of Lynn Canal Gillnetters.
O’Riley commented that the chum price is now equal to what it was 25 years ago, and said the increased value of the fish wasn’t going to primary processors or fishermen but to “middlemen.” “What other product has the price stayed the same for 25 years? Go down to Seattle and buy a fish and tell me how much it costs. When you think about it, it’s pretty ridiculous.”
Local fishermen also saw increased competition on the fishing grounds, so the canal harvest was divvied up into smaller shares. Boats representing 253 individual permits fished local waters, the biggest fleet dropping nets in local waters since 1991. On the opening that started June 30, a season-high of 229 boats were fishing here.
Participation in the Lynn Canal gillnet fishery has been growing since 2005, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Poor fishing in southern districts helped attract gillnetters to Lynn Canal, and a Taku Inlet fishery that sometimes draws heat off local areas didn’t peak in time to draw fishermen there. “All those guys had to come up here,” O’Riley said.
Fishermen acknowledged that the fishery has seen a big turnaround since fish values tanked about 10 years ago, and that this year’s drop compares to a harvest and prices last year that were the best in about 30 years.
“I’m not doing the math with last year’s numbers and then looking at my (fish) ticket,” Adams said. “In terms of gold mining, last year was the big nugget you find that keeps you going year after year. This year was still a good year for fishing, and fishing still beats the hell out of any other job for me. But the main thing is we’ve got to get escapement.”
John S. Hagen, who started running his own boat last year, said it was pretty tough to sit in Haines and hear about fishermen having record-breaking catches, while fish escapement – particularly into Chilkoot Lake – was still relatively low. “Why don’t we have record escapements, or at least ones that go above the bare minimum?”
Fishermen say they are saddled with gear and area restrictions that have them conserving Chilkoot sockeye when other gear groups, and particularly seiners, fish nearby with nets that don’t discriminate between types of salmon.
“I don’t think (state fishery managers) have a clear understanding of how many sockeye (seiners) are catching,” said Adams. “We have a fishing fleet that’s asking for high escapement goals. Let’s aim high. That’s a message we’ve been going to Fish and Game with.”
Dave Harris, a Juneau-based area management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, said seiners south of Haines intercepted some reds, but he does not have hard numbers. “I’m not saying (seiners) didn’t catch some fish bound for Chilkoot and Chilkat, but I don’t think the impact was as big as some people were concerned.”
A management plan limits seine catches of sockeye to 15,000 fish in July, Harris said. In addition, low numbers of Chilkoot sockeye returns kept the Hawk Inlet shoreline – a seine area of concern to gillnetters – closed for a good portion of July, he said. Hawk Inlet was opened only conservatively in August, Harris said.
The fishery at Amalga Harbor did catch sockeye, but at least 40 percent of those were from a hatchery release at Snettisham and others were wild fish, including ones bound for the Taku River, Harris said. The bulk of the record-setting pink salmon catch in Southeast came from southern Southeast and the outer coasts of Chichagof and Baranof islands, Harris said. Only about 10 percent of a 90 million-fish pink harvest in Southeast come from the Juneau-area, he said.
Randy Bachman, commercial fisheries biologist for Fish and Game, said Chilkoot and Chilkat systems met sockeye escapement goals, at 46,000 and 114,000 fish. Chilkoot was below the 20-year average of 55,000 reds. The low end of the escapement range is 38,000. Chilkat sockeye escapement was above average, with a targeted range of 70,000 to 150,000 fish.
The total sockeye take was 120,000, up from a 10-year average of 107,000 reds and nearly identical to last year’s take of 122,000, but down from an average of 191,000 since 1980. Bachman said the more recent average is more important, as it reflects a period of less variability in management plans. Sockeye harvests in the late 1980s may have been larger than local river systems here could sustain, he said.
The 2013 sockeye harvest includes 75,000 Chilkat-bound fish, 23,000 headed for Chilkoot Lake and 23,000 from other areas, including the Chilkat River mainstem, Berner’s Bay, Lace River and Snettisham.
Fall chum and coho runs were strong, said biologist Bachman. A harvest of 110,000 wild, fall chum was the highest since 1994 and second-highest since 1988. The 10-year average catch is 64,000 chum. Fall chum escapement is estimated at around 170,000, the top of the escapement goal range, Bachman said.
Gillnetters harvested 65,000 coho, compared to a 10-year average of 41,600 and a 32-year average of 58,300. Fishermen harvested 127,000 pink salmon, down from a 10-year average of 177,000 and 353,000 pinks last year. The fleet took 508,000 pinks in 2011.
Fisherman Bill Thomas, a former state legislator, is among fishermen who have concerns with management of Lynn Canal’s natural stocks. He called the year “one of the worst natural-stock fisheries in years.”
Thomas expressed concern about a relatively low number of pinks returning this year to Chiilkoot River. “Sustainability in Haines is a problem,” Thomas said.
Because the bulk of Chilkoot Lake sockeye didn’t arrive until late in the year, fishermen didn’t have much opportunity to fish on them. Chilkat Lake sockeye, although abundant, swim deep in the water and are more difficult to catch, Thomas said.
Average gillnet prices, per pound, this season included $1.72 for sockeye, $1.33 for coho, and 29 cents for pinks. In 2012, average prices were $1.46 for sockeye, $1.29 for coho, and 35 cents for pinks.