Commercial gillnet catches around Wrangell and Petersburg have yielded fewer sockeye salmon than expected in the first few weeks of the season. The fleet had no openings for Stikine River king salmon in May and early June.
Gillnetters finished up with the third week of fishing on Thursday, July 2nd in district six around the north end of Prince of Wales Island and district 8 around the Stikine River. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s area management biologist Troy Thynes said the number of boats fishing in that part of Southeast Alaska is down this year. “Generally what we’ve seen is effort in both areas is running low, probably running 60-70 percent of the recent 10-year average,” Thynes said. “You know catches overall have been on the low side as well. It has a lot to do with the effort but also the sockeye returns to the Stikine River are coming in what we think is lower than the pre-season forecast.”
The pre-season forecast for Stikine sockeye this year is 171,000 fish, an average return for that river system. The U.S. and Canada have a harvest sharing arrangement for the trans-boundary fish under the Pacific Salmon Treaty. This year that agreement allows for a catch on the U.S. side of the border of 52,500 sockeye. In district 8, the sockeye catch is mostly those Stikine fish, while district 6 has some other runs contribute to the catch.
Gillnetters caught 7,500 red salmon in district six during an opening in late June and early July. The 36 boats fishing there also landed 6,000 coho, 4,000 pinks and 11,000 chum during those four days. Catches in district 8 were lower, 1,500 sockeye and the same number of chums.
Thynes said Fish and Game may have to decrease fishing time if the sockeye run continues to come in lower than expected.
Meanwhile gillnetters had no early season directed fishery on Stikine River king salmon this year. That fishery can open in May in early June, depending on the strength of the run. Like sockeye, catches for Stikine Chinook are governed by the Pacific Salmon Treaty agreement between the U.S. and Canada.
The pre-season forecast was for a run of just over 30,000 large Stikine kings, only allowing for a U.S. catch of 210 fish. That small an allocation meant more chance for sport fishing but no commercial gillnet or troll openings.
Thynes noted the sunny dry month of May meant high snow melt on the Stikine and high river levels “And that affects the catches in river, which affects our stock assessment programs in river essentially,” he said. “So we were not able to get a mid season forecast out until mid-June.” Fish and Game’s revised forecast number is just below the 30,000 kings expected before the run began.
Roughly half of the Stikine king and sockeye runs return to a tributary system, the Tahltan River and lake to spawn. Last year a landslide on that waterway created a partial blockage for the returning salmon. Thynes said the Canadians removed some of the larger rocks from that blockage over the winter and have since observed kings returning to their spawning grounds. “Early on with the high flows, there was still, it was still inhibiting passage of king salmon at least. And just recently I was just talking to my counterpart in Canada this morning and he said now that the water levels have come down, they actually have observed king salmon passing the slide area.”
Canadian fishery managers last year helicoptered some of the returning sockeye and kings around the landslide. Other sockeye were able to get past the blockage, while the larger and earlier kings had more trouble getting to their spawning grounds.