High water frustrates local fish counts

High dock prices and a strong sockeye salmon catch have kept hope afloat for the Lynn Canal commercial drift gillnet fishery, which opened June 19 with a lower-than-usual chum salmon harvest.

Salmon prices at fish processor Haines Packing Co. have started where they left off last year: Chum topped $1 per pound and sockeye went for above $2.

Lynn Canal gillnetters caught about 96 king, 2,112 sockeye, 10 coho and 10,755 chum salmon in the opening two days, June 19-June 21, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Nicole Zeiser. No pink salmon were harvested during the opener.

The opening sockeye harvest was above the recent average, as calculated by the state, but the chum catch fell short. Chum and sockeye are the most targeted species in Lynn Canal.

Zeiser told the CVN on Tuesday that the chum harvest accelerated during the season’s second week. The state hadn’t published second-week numbers as of Tuesday.

The opening chinook and coho harvests neared the recent 10-year average, according to ADFG.

Zeiser said “it’s a little too early” to make a definitive statement about the rest of the season based on harvest numbers to date.

Local prices are up with an expectation that global demand for salmon will remain high, as it was last year. Haines Packing is buying chum for $1.15 per pound, sockeye for $2.15 and pinks for $0.35, owner Harry Rietze said. ADFG reported the average price for kings in the Lynn Canal at $5.28.

Local chum and sockeye prices are well above the statewide average. The average sockeye price in Southeast Alaska has topped $2 only once since 1984, and chum prices rarely reach $1.

With 84 boats fishing the opener, participation was above average, Zeiser said. Most fishing occurred in the Postage Stamp area south of Berner’s Bay, where there are both hatchery chum and wild sockeye.

Commercial gillnetting in Lynn Canal is restricted to two days per week through mid-July to reduce bycatch of Chilkat River kings, listed as a stock of concern in 2018 by the Alaska Board of Fisheries after several years of failing to meet the state’s escapement target.

The chum harvest was poor at the Boat Harbor area near William Henry Bay — where Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC) hatchery fish are released — according to a state fisheries update. DIPAC forecasted a run of 2.2 million hatchery chum in Lynn Canal this year.

Zeiser said there was overcrowding at Postage Stamp, where Monday she counted about 90% of the fleet.

The state also looks at fish counts on the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers for a sense of the district’s total run strength. But “all of our (fish count) projects are compromised right now due to the high water, thanks to the 90-degree weather,” Zeiser said.

High water levels from snow and glacier melt caused the department to pull pickets and suspend its count at the Chilkoot River weir.

Flooding near the Clear Creek weir at Chilkat Lake changed the creek’s course, forcing fish past the weir in the wrong direction.

“When the Tsirku River is flooding, it pushes water up into Clear Creek, which causes a ‘reversal,’ meaning the water is flowing upstream instead of downstream,” Zeiser said. So the department now has to subtract backwards-flowing fish from the total escapement count.

The Chilkat River fish wheels are still running, but Zeiser said “there’s super high water, so they’re spinning real fast” and catching a lot of debris.

Likely due in part to the compromised equipment, Chilkat king and sockeye counts are below average, as are Chilkoot sockeye counts, according to ADFG.

Three weeks into the season last year the chum harvest was up and sockeye were down. But a late sockeye run up the Chilkoot River in August surprised and delighted fishermen.