Early returns of hatchery chum salmon have meant a good start to Southeast Alaska’s commercial net fisheries this summer. The purse seine fleet has been hauling in dog salmon returning to hatcheries in the northern and central part of the region. Meanwhile, the gillnet fleet has been catching a mixed bag in the opening weeks of the season, but hatchery chums have been the big catch in Lynn Canal and near Juneau. As chum runs slow down, the first returns of an expected strong of pink salmon are showing up in the commercial catch.
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The total catch for Southeast’s commercial fishing fleets by the end of the second week in July topped eight point five million fish, with nearly five million of those chum salmon. Those dogs have been overall the most lucrative salmon species in the region in recent years and every gear group is getting in on the action.
Southeast’s purse seine fleet has been fishing two days a week, Thursdays and Sundays, and boats have had a choice for hatchery chums this year, Hidden Falls east of Sitka or Amalga Harbor north of Juneau.
Steve Reifenstuhl is general manager of the Sitka-based Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which owns the Hidden Falls hatchery on eastern Baranof Island. Seine fishing started in Fish and Game’s statistical week 25 and Reifenstuhl noted the Hidden Falls chums showed up early and in big numbers. “In week 25 it was the most fish we’ve ever seen in our entire history at Hidden Falls. Then week 26 was the second largest week we’d ever seen,” Reifenstuhl said. I still wasn’t thinking it was gonna be a huge run I was just thinking it was early. I mean it’s always nice to think its gonna be huge but sometimes it’s just early. And that’s just what it appears it is, is an early peak but it’s got a longer tail than I was thinking it might have.”
Reifenstuhl expects to meet NSRAA’s forecast of one point three million forecast for Hidden Falls. “Well I’ve been wondering about that and worrying about it for a while but I am certain we’re gonna make it,” he said. “In fact, fish are coming in from the south and starting to get into Takatz Bay. So I think we’re gonna get another pretty good shot of fish. I expect we will perhaps hit one point five million.”
Boats not heading to Hidden Falls have had openings at Amalga Harbor, catching chums returning to the Juneau based Douglas Island Pink and Chum, or DIPAC. Executive director Eric Prestegard said the fleet had a huge opening there July 4th. “That was quite a surprise one, the first one, probably close to five million pounds of fish, maybe 650-thousand fish, which that was much bigger than we had thought, I think that anybody had thought. So that was quite a surprise and quite a good surprise for a lot of folks. I think that’s a great economic boon for the seine fleet, to Juneau and to all the processors, yeah it’s great, we’re happy.”
Seining has slowed since then in Amalga Harbor. However, Prestegard said DIPAC already has hit its chum forecast and is hoping for more. “We were forecasting about two point seven million, our point estimate, two point seven million chums. We can easily account for that already,” he said. “It was a very early start, definitely a strong early start to the run this year and it seems like just about everybody is getting some of ‘em.”
Everybody meaning, all gear groups, with the troll fleet topping 300,000 chums in the “home shore” area of Icy Strait and strong DIPAC chum catches for the gillnet fleets in Taku Inlet and Lynn Canal. Southeast processors have been paying about 55-60 cents a pound for chums.
Meanwhile, its forecast to be another big year for pink salmon. Fish and Game is estimating a commercial catch of 54 million pinks this summer. Bill Davidson, regional salmon management coordinator for Fish and Game, said the fish are cooperating so far. “The pinks are showing up as we would expect, maybe some different patterns are going to evolve out of the season with where they show up but the pinks seem to be there; we’re just early on into the run. And the chums are likewise kindof I think roughly on track,” Davidson said.
233 seine boats landed fish in the second week in July, helping Southeast’s pink catch reach two point nine million fish. The big catches of the peak pink season typically happen in late July and early August.
Meanwhile, the gillnet fleet has been fishing for three or four days a week depending on the areas. Gillnetters did not get to fish in the early season on king salmon returning to the transboundary rivers, the Taku near Juneau and the Stikine near Wrangell. Davidson said weak Chinook returns have meant less fishing opportunity in places like districts six and eight, around Petersburg and Wrangell. “Both of the two transboundary rivers there have been on the weak side as expected this year. And we’ve taken action, we opened up (districts) six and eight late and had restrictions on area off the river mouth to conserve those fish.”
Likewise , the gillnet fleet around the Taku has seen restrictions. The in-season forecast for that river is for a return of 19-thousand kings. Managers are forecasting a return of around 22-thousand on the Stikine.
Despite weak forecasts, gillnetters in district 8 around Petersburg and Wrangell caught a thousand king salmon the second week in July, with an average of 50 kings per boat. The fleet in district 6 around the north end of Prince of Wales Island caught a mixed bag of sockeye, coho, pink and chum.
Overall, the second week in July saw gillnetters landing over 600-thousand fish, 480-thousand of those were chums, and most of those chums were caught in districts 11 and 15 around Juneau and Lynn Canal.
Only 60 boats were fishing on the southern end near Ketchikan but those boats averaged 800 pinks and one thousand chums for that second week.
An opening in the first week of July saw the gillnet fleet net 651-thousand salmon, again mostly chums. Around 400 gillnetters made landings that week, and nearly half were fishing in Lynn Canal.