Troll caught chum salmon are fetching around a dollar a pound for fishermen this year. (Photo courtesy of Matt Lichtenstein)

900,000 chum salmon – that was the catch by the purse seine fleet at Crawfish Inlet south of Sitka Thursday, August 30. It looks to be a new record chum catch for a one-day opening in Southeast Alaska.

Crawfish Inlet is a new remote release site for the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, or NSRAA. It’s about 40 miles south of Sitka. This is the second year for fish returning to there. NSRAA general manager Steve Reifenstuhl said Thursday’s catch is bigger than any one-day catch on record for the private non-profit’s hatchery at Hidden Falls on the opposite side of Baranof Island.

“Well at Hidden Falls and that’s what it’s been compared to prior to the opening, seiners and pilots were both telling me they’d never seen anything like this since Hidden Falls,” Reifenstuhl said. “Their observation was this is better, this looks better more fish than even Hidden Falls did in its biggest year. And so as I said a record was broken. 900,000 fish in one day is more fish then were ever caught in Hidden Falls in one day.”

Huge chum runs at Hidden Falls Hatchery in 1996 and 2000 produced some multi-day openings with catches topping a million fish, but no single-day openings with that large of a catch. That facility had a record return in 1996 of over four million chum. Crawfish Inlet this year looks like it will top two million, more than three times the forecast of 680,000 fish.

“Right now we’re more than double that, we’re at 1.8 million and we’re expecting it to go to 2.1-2.3 at this point,” Reifenstuhl said. “So it’s kind of a phenomenon. We are looking at 6-7 percent marine survival. We don’t have all the data in yet but it’s definitely a phenomenon.”

Hatcheries aim to have all of a year’s returning fish caught. Some are used to create the next generation. Others are sold to fund the hatchery’s operations, or what’s known as cost recovery fishing. And if there are enough left over, fishing is opened to different gear groups in what’s called a common property fishery. The board of the private non-profit hatchery association voted to have Crawfish Inlet as a priority area for the troll fleet this year and next. Reifenstuhl said there was no intention to have a seine opening there, let alone two.

“It was all going to be troll fishery, which has been very successful too and then the rest taken for cost recovery,” he explained. “But there were so many fish, Silver Bay (Seafoods) who has the contract for the cost recovery decided they were willing to put in a common property fishery and yesterday was the second one and it broke records for Southeast is my understanding.”

That decision by Silver Bay allowed competitors like Icicle and Trident to share in the bumper crop at Crawfish Inlet. 90 seine boats were fishing last Thursday, making the average catch 10,000 chum per boat. And it’s an economic boost for the boats that were fishing and the companies processing the fish in a season without a lot of good news. Reifenstuhl said the value of that one day’s catch was over six million dollars to the fishing boats and 13 million dollars for the first wholesale. Another seine opening is now planned for Thursday, September 6.

(Editor’s note: this story has been updated a third seine opening at Crawfish Inlet>)