Salmon caught in a gillnet near Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska in 2018. (Photo by Angela Denning)

Commercial salmon fishing has begun in Southeast Alaska for seiners, trollers, and gillnetters. Most of the salmon runs in the region are forecast to be below average to average this year. CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning reports:

Five different salmon species are making their way to spawn in rivers and streams throughout the region. Some are part of Indigenous runs and others are hatchery grown and released.

Overall, the Southeast runs aren’t expected to be strong this year.

“We weren’t expecting too great of runs overall as far as salmon goes,” said Troy Thynes, Regional Finfish Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “So, all in all, going into the season, we’re expecting a poorer season than what we experienced last season.”

By volume, pink salmon make up the largest commercial harvest in the region by far. The pre-season forecast is for 16 million fish, which is considered weak. Pinks are on a two year cycle with even years producing smaller returns.

Most chum salmon in Southeast are hatchery produced. Thynes says those operators are expecting low runs this year with a total of around 8 million chum salmon.

Southeast’s chinook or king salmon has had poor returns region wide for several years. And that’s not changing, says Thynes.

“For the systems that we do forecast for, for the most part, we’re projecting runs that would come in below the escapement goals,” Thynes said.

Escapement goals are the number of salmon that managers want to see reach spawning grounds in order to sustain future runs.

However, like weather forecasts, salmon forecasts can change. Last year, for example, managers predicted an average pink salmon harvest of 28 million. It ended up being over 48 million fish.

This year, they forecasted poor sockeye salmon returns for the Stikine River near Wrangell and the Taku River near Juneau. Yet, the runs are coming in stronger than that.

“So far indications are that the sockeye abundance appears to be better than we were expecting so that’s a big plus.” Thynes said.

Managers are expecting average sockeye runs for the Chilkat and Chilkoot Rivers near Haines.

Coho salmon are the hardest species to forecast so managers don’t do many estimations. Thynes says the fish spend a varying amount of time in fresh water before heading into the ocean.

“Coho are just generally harder to forecast because of the variance in their life history,” he said. “They can spend a number of years in fresh water but they only spend one year out in the ocean.”

Pinks are the only other type of salmon that spend just one year in the ocean. So, managers can get some indication of how the coho run might go by watching the pinks.

“Often times, for pink salmon and coho salmon there can be a correlation in their abundances because they experience the same ocean conditions,” Thynes said. “So, if the ocean is good for pink salmon it could be good for coho salmon as well.”

It’s still early in the salmon season and fisheries are just getting underway in Southeast. No matter what the outcome will be, the commercial salmon industry is always an important economic driver in the region.

Last year, the commercial catch was valued at over $130 million at the docks.