JUNEAU (AP) -- State biologists are forecasting a stronger harvest of salmon this coming summer. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates 150 million fish will be caught by commercial fishers, up from 131 million last year.
But Doug Mecum, director of the department's Commercial Fisheries Division, said fishers shouldn't expect to get more money for those fish.
''We're looking at another 19 million fish. A lot of that's a pink salmon increase,'' he said. ''Pink salmon are the lowest-value fish, so we're not really looking at much of a different picture on the value side.''
Last year's statewide salmon harvest was in Alaska's top 15 as far as sheer number of fish caught. But it also was the lowest-value catch since 1976, according to the department.
The additional pink salmon don't bode well for the market, said seafood industry analyst Chris McDowell.
''Unless there is a major surplus reduction buy from USDA (the Department of Agriculture), the short version of a long story is that we're producing about 3.5 million cases of canned pinks a year, and we're selling about 3 million,'' he said.
Gov. Frank Murkowski asked the Department of Agriculture last week to buy $30 million in surplus canned pink salmon. Murkowski spokesperson John Manly said the request is pending.
The state also is expecting a larger chum harvest than last year.
As for the big-money salmon, the sockeye, kings and cohos, the state's harvest predictions are simply averages of previous returns, Mecum said.
''We just don't have any models that work to forecast those other species,'' he said.
But he said the coho forecast is usually pretty strongly correlated with pink salmon returns because both fish go out to sea at about the same time. So it's safe to forecast a stronger coho run based on a stronger pink run.
Mecum said the higher chum forecast is promising.
''It's predominantly hatchery chum salmon, so that's good news because hatchery chums make up a significant part of the income for fishermen in Southeast,'' he said.
Southeast Alaska's commercial fishers caught 57.1 million salmon in 2002.
But the ex-vessel value was just $42.6 million, barely half the figure of the year before and far below the numbers for the previous five years, McDowell said. The ex-vessel value is what processors pay to fishers at the docks.
Southeast's ex-vessel salmon value was $93 million in 2001, and ranged from $72 million to $90 million annually between 1997 and 2000, according to McDowell.
The sharp drop in value for 2002 was due to a smaller harvest and a weaker chum market, McDowell said. The demand for Alaska chums was high last year in Japan, where the fish is prized for its roe. But the Japanese chum harvest rebounded in 2002 after a bad year in 2001.
In 2002, Southeast fishers caught 45 million pinks. This year's Southeast pink forecast is somewhere in the range of 32 million to 55 million fish.
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