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Commercial fishing season looks bright: Managers expect strong Cook Inlet salmon return, good prices at the dock

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

It's looking to be a booming year for commercial fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game's 2011 Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon forecast says the fish are coming in above average. And if the market for salmon holds up it could prove a lucrative season for the industry.

The department said it estimates this year's sockeye salmon run in the Kenai River to be 3.9 million, a 9-percent increase from the past 20-year average of 3.6 million, according to its 2011 preliminary forecast for Upper Cook Inlet reds.

And for the Kasilof River, Fish and Game is estimating a run of 929,000 fish, a 3-percent increase from the 20-year average of 902,000 salmon.

According to Fish and Game, the total sockeye salmon run is forecast at 6.4 million fish, with a harvest expectation of 4.4 to 4.8 million fish.

"That's good news and good news for all users," said Pat Shields, Fish and Game assistant manager of Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.

This forecast is a sea change from 2010's dismal numbers that were predicted about half that amount of fish to return.

Lucky for the fishermen, Fish and Game's predictions were off and the fish came into the Kenai above forecast.

Bill Holt, a commercial drift gillnetter, said he did "quite a bit" better than expected last year and he's hoping for the same this season.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the predictions for this year are at least as good as what's predicted to be or better," he said. "So I'm optimistic."

"It seems like fishing is getting to be a viable thing this year," Holt said.

But what makes or breaks a season for commercial fishermen is how much green they get for netting the reds.

"There's a general expectation that the processing should be good," Shields said.

Last year sockeye topped $1.75 per pound. And he said it's likely the market could reach that price again.

Mark Powell, president of Kenai's Alaska Salmon Purchasers Inc., said that while prices are uncertain this time of year the market looks strong for salmon.

"Market demand and consumption of wild salmon looks good," he said. "Based on current projections we're cautiously optimistic on a fairly good fishing year this year."

Cautiously optimistic -- that seems to be the catch phrase for all involved in fishing.

"It's very encouraging to have a good outlook but I'm not going to go out and start buying things on the outlook," said Doug Blossom, a commercial setnet fisherman out of Ninilchik.

The 2011 commercial harvest forecast for other salmon species is 106,000 for pinks, 101,000 for chum, 178,000 for Coho and 14,000 for Chinook.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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