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Sockeye return falls short of projections


July 19, 2018 | View PDF

A pulse of sockeye swam up the Chilkoot River early this week, bolstering what was a dismal early run, but the Chilkat River still has Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists concerned.

Fish and Game area commercial fisheries biologist Wyatt Rhea-Fournier said while he attributed last year’s record low sockeye run to over-escapement during the run’s parent year, this year’s low return has him puzzled.

“Although the sockeye return to Chilkoot Lake began slowly, it has picked up with just more than 5,000 sockeye passing through last week,” Rhea-Fournier said. “Although this has us on pace with the 10-year average, it will be during the next three weeks that the majority of the run returns. I am hoping for at least 10,000 sockeye each week migrating into the Chilkoot Lake.”

About 5,000 sockeye passed the weir last week, which tracked above the 10-year average and helped make up for the slow returns early in the season, Rhea-Fournier said. Only 1,026 sockeye have passed the weir this week. To be on pace with the 10-year average, Chilkoot Lake needs 11,000 fish this week, Rhea-Fournier said.

Rhea-Fournier has placed more severe commercial fishing restrictions in the district including a 6-inch maximum mesh size to let sockeye through the fishery and limiting fishing time and area. “I threw a 6-inch minimum on this week to get those Chilkoot fish through,” Rhea-Fournier said. “If those Chilkoot fish are coming I’ve got to have them. I want them to get through the fishery and get to this weir. If I can get two buster weeks, 10,000 fish plus, I’m going to be feeling better, but I can’t risk it because if we miss the peak we’re screwed.”

The Chilkat River fish wheels and the Chilkat Lake weir are both showing weak sockeye returns and are at about 50 percent of the 10-year average. Sockeye returns have been weak to many systems across Alaska, especially during the beginning of the run. This may indicate an increase in marine mortality.

“At first we were asking, ‘Is it a delayed run?’” Rhea-Fournier said. “It’s not necessarily delayed, it’s just that the first half of the run’s not there.”

The Chilkat Lake should have seen 10,000 sockeye passing by July 14, but this year the count is at 5,600, according to Fish and Game predictions.

The gillnet fleet is landing smaller than average harvests for sockeye as well—around 8,000 by last week, according to Fish and Game estimates. “The scary part was that was when I had a 6-inch max mesh restriction and guys were fishing 5-1/8, they still weren’t catching any sockeye,” Rhea-Fournier said.

Additional restrictions to protect king salmon instituted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries this spring, along with more conservative management locally have reduced the overall king harvest, Rhea-Fournier said. This time last year, the fleet caught 300 to 400 kings a week. The fleet has reported less than 200 during the same period this year.

The Douglas Island Pink & Chum (DIPAC) hatchery run is also returning weaker than expected due a weak return of four-year-old chums, according to DIPAC Executive Director Eric Prestegard. “The run appeared early with some early strength,” Prestegard said. “At first we were pretty excited. It looked real good. But I think we’re looking at the run being about 25 percent less than forecasted and that’s solely due to the four-year-old class coming in half at what we had forecasted.”

The price for chums, 90 cents, is providing some solace to the fleet and a higher price than last year. A significant portion of the Southeast gillnet fleet has been fishing in the Lynn Canal. Commercial fisherman Norman Hughes said he’s seen boats from Sitka and Ketchikan fishing locally because of poor returns in other Southeast districts. He said between the increase in effort and a smaller run, the fishing pales to last year’s enormous chum harvest.

“They’re trying to catch last year’s fish this year,’ Hughes said. “I’m seeing less fish. There’s a lot of effort. We had over 200 boats in the canal last week. That’s almost half the gillnet fleet. I had a strong week last week and the week before, but I need a strong July to help make it a solid season. In August we don’t know if there’s going to be sockeyes. A good portion of the money is made this month, at least for me. Enhanced chums pay a significant portion of my income.”

Hughes said the chum are getting smaller and that he thinks the run is tailing off. He said he’s caught about 30 sockeye per week, but he’s not targeting them.

Fish and Game counted 109 boats in the district on Tuesday.


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