Weak returns and hot weather made this summer a tough one for fishermen in southeast Alaska.
During the 2013 commercial fishing season, state records were broken for both chum and pink salmon with total pink harvest numbers exceeding 219 million fish, while rainfall reached record high levels.
“My best year was five years ago,” said commercial fisherman, David White. “There was a huge abundance of humpies and also chum salmon. My worst year was two or three years after that.”
Lack of rain in Southeast Alaska has contributed to a low 2018 commercial harvest for some species in certain areas. This included a drop of about 70 million pink salmon, according to Fish and Game. “That worst year, there was no rain.” said White. ”And when it finally did rain there was a lot of freshwater on top. That contributed to the fish not coming in from the open ocean. That was one theory.”
This year, the first wave of chum and pink salmon did not come into the Ketchikan Creek spawning grounds until late August. Typically the creek is flooded with fish by mid July. Unscheduled return of salmon benefits the immediate year, but it disrupts harvest numbers in the following years. “In my 18 years of salmon fishing, it’s pretty predictable that there is going to be a run and the fish are on their way some place, they are on a mission,” said White. “It’s not like they don’t come back, but you never know what kind of conditions are happening out in open ocean. There have been some theories that some runs were damaged because there was not enough feed in the ocean“.
Salmon returning unscheduled effects runs and harvest totals. “In 2013, there was 4 year old and 5 year olds coming back, that’s why we had such a big year.” said White. “As I recall, that’s why the next year was not very strong because some of those fish had come in a year early.”
“Total harvest numbers are down over 30% across Alaska, with Southeast being 67% below historical averages,” according to Fish and Game. “Most of the harvest shortfall has come in the form of poor pink salmon returns to streams and rivers.”
Salmon have been limited across the board, including sport fishing. Some areas were closed for king salmon fishing entirely, while others were limited to one king salmon per day.”
For the first time in 70 years, the king salmon derby was changed to a silver salmon derby. The future of Alaska’s fishing industry is unpredictable.
“Fishing was slow,” said Kayhi junior Devin Dalin. “We had to go further out to find good amounts of fish. Even then, it was still spotty. Local fishing grounds have been unusually crowded throughout the entire season”
Despite the derby being a silver salmon based event, many fisherman targeted king salmon. “Catching cohos is fun, but after awhile it wears off,” said Dalin. “The fight of a 15 pound king dwarfs that of a coho. When you know and realize you have the fish that everyone wants (king salmon) it is a good feeling, even if you can’t turn it in for any type of prize.”
Fishing resorts offering daily boat rentals noticed the struggles as well. “There was a slight decline in returning out of state fisherman renting boats,” said Carter Thomas, Alaska Sportfishing Expeditions. “A good amount of people still rented boats, but the number of fish brought back was much lower than usual.”
Every corner of the industry is observing changes. State efforts paired with enhancement hatcheries will help to preserve sustainable harvest numbers for the future.