Purse seiners enter the Wrangell Narrows near Petersburg in 2018. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Southeast Alaska’s commercial catch of pink salmon is taking off and could surpass the preseason forecast.

The region’s purse seine fleet netted nearly six million pinks in an opening in early August. That pushed the region’s total catch to around 20 million fish on the season.

“We’re right in the peak of the season and right now it looks like I project our final harvest if things keep up like this will probably be somewhere near the upper bound of our pre-season forecast,” said Andy Piston, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s pink and chum salmon project leader for Southeast. “Our preseason forecast was for a harvest of 28 million with a 80 percent prediction interval of 19-42 million and right now it looks like we could get up into that lower 40 million range the way catches are going.”

That would be one of the better catches in the last several years, though far from the record setting run of 2013. Pink salmon live for two years; the parents of this year’s run spawned in 2019. The catch that year was just over 21 million and the region saw poor numbers on the inside waters of the northern part of the region.

Piston noted that this year’s returning pinks likely did not experience warm ocean conditions that produced low returns in the past few years.

“You know if you look at the ocean conditions these fish went out into, you know the Gulf (of Alaska) was pretty normal all this last fall winter and spring and so unlike in a lot of recent years the pink salmon that went to sea had pretty average conditions and I think we’re seeing that pay off in some really good survival rates out there,” Piston said.

Catch rates and numbers of fish escaping to spawning streams look to be good throughout most of the region. This year’s pinks are much smaller than average and the number of male fish is higher than usual for this time of year. Both of those could signal a slightly later and stronger run.

The strong catch is keeping seafood companies busy. OBI Seafoods’ Petersburg plant blew its steam whistle Monday, August 9. That sound means the plant reached 100,000 cases of canned salmon, a mark it hadn’t hit since 2019. Plant manager Nikolai Wendel emailed that they reached that number just before 11 a.m. on Monday. In 2019, OBI canned 140,000 cases. Wendel called this season the best in five years.

(This story had additional reporting by Katie Anastas)