Pink salmon swim in Cabin Creek on eastern Mitkof Island. (Photo courtesy of Cindi Lagoudakis)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a commercial catch of 23 million pink salmon in Southeast Alaska next year. That would be down from this year but would come close to historical averages. Managers are expecting something similar to the disappointing season of 2016. However, for the first time in a decade, next year’s forecast is not adjusted using survey data from outgoing young pink salmon because of unusually low numbers.

The state agency comes up with a forecast based on an average of the annual catch for even or odd years. For the past decade, that forecast has been adjusted using the results of an annual trawl survey done by staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Auke Bay lab in Juneau.

“Starting in 2007 ADF&G has been incorporating their information into our forecasts and adjusting our simple trend forecast and that’s greatly improved our forecast performance in recent years,” said Andy Piston, Fish and Game’s pink and chum salmon project leader for Southeast.

“This year we took that data and what we found is their juvenile pink salmon abundance index was the lowest we’ve ever seen,” Piston said, adding, “it was only about a quarter of the previous low value. And because of that when we used methods similar to what we’ve used in past years in some cases it gave us negative forecasts and in other cases it just gave us extremely low, single digit forecasts.”

That NOAA trawl survey captures young pink salmon leaving streams from the inside waters of the northern panhandle. The results this year were the lowest in the 21 years of that survey. Piston explains Fish and Game forecasters opted to leave that adjustment out of the calculation for 2018. Instead they reverted to their old method of an average of recent past even year catches.

The 23 million pink forecast would be down from this year’s 34 million but it would be an improvement from the parent year, 2016. That year the catch was nearly 18 and a half million with very little harvest on northern Southeast inside waters. Openings were limited in that part of the region as managers sought to meet goals for fish returning to spawn and some seiners ended their season early because of the disappointing pink run. That could be the case again next year.

“You know if you look at the return next year based on this NOAA data and other information we have, it looks very probable that they’ll be very little harvest on northern Southeast inside waters,” Piston said. “And I think the real uncertainty is what will return to southern Southeast.”

Piston said Fish and Game plans to use the trawl survey data to adjust its forecast in the future just not this year. Pink salmon runs are difficult to forecast because, unlike other species, they don’t have different ages returning in the same year – adults are all two year olds. There’s also not a great correlation between how many fish spawn one year and how many survive in the ocean and return to spawn two years later. Southeast’s catch has fluctuated dramatically. Pinks are targeted mainly by the region’s purse seine fleet and are mostly canned or frozen. NOAA Fisheries releases its own harvest forecast later in the year.

A task force comprised of fishery managers and seine industry representatives meets Tuesday, November 28th from 9-5 at the Ted Ferry Civic Center in Ketchikan.