Another ho-hum season predicted for inlet's fishers

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists' 2003 catch predictions for Cook Inlet salmon fishers look much the same as they have for the past several years, with harvest numbers that mostly fall short of what would be considered average seasons.

The seine fleet and setnetters of the lower Cook Inlet region will have a shot at a total harvest of 1.8 million salmon this season, according to preliminary forecast numbers.

The pink salmon catch to the lower inlet looks to be around 1.5 million fish, almost two-thirds of which are the result of hatchery enhancement programs. Last year's unexpectedly strong showings at Bruin Bay and Port Dick show further evidence that lower Cook Inlet has switched over in the last half decade to an even-year-dominant pink regime, said Fish and Game area management biologist Lee Hammarstrom.

"We have no explanation for what is happening," Hammarstrom said. "Unfortunately, it's not translating to the hatcheries."

The Tutka Bay hatchery run by the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Associ-ation is expecting a return of 1.1 million humpies, according to Gary Fandrei, CIAA executive director. Because of the low market value of pinks and shortfalls in the number of returning adults, almost all of that total will be harvested in CIAA's cost-recovery effort.

The forecasted sockeye harvest of 307,000 fish is only a slight improvement from the last several years as the Southern District's enhancement projects continue to feel the aftereffects of an IHN virus outbreak at Trail Lakes Hatchery.

The English Bay Lakes en-hancement project, a huge surprise in 2002, looks to have another big year on tap with 75,000 fish slated for commercial harvest.

In the Northern District, the drift and setnet fishers of upper Cook Inlet are in line to harvest a combined total of about 2.4 million sockeye from a regionwide return of 3.9 million.

That puts roughly a million fewer fish into gillnets than has been the average in the past decade.

That's the bad news.

But with a variety of factors indicating that international producers of farmed salmon will put less fish on the market this year, the near rock-bottom prices fishers recently have seen might be looking up somewhat.

That's the potential good news.

And in these tough times, which find Alaska's salmon industry desperately trying to redefine itself --even reinvent itself -- good news, no matter how uncertain, is welcome.

For the gillnet fishers of upper Cook Inlet, there may be a few other encouraging signs.

Some processors have been indicating privately that they may be paying slightly more at the docks this year, said Jeff Beaudoin, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association.

Beaudoin said the better prices are partly due to the fact that last year's ex-vessel price was especially low -- around 58 cents a pound -- because processors were trying to recoup losses from a lean 2001 season that featured an abrupt surge of fish.

A large majority of the Kenai fish were caught within a few days that season, and the canneries could not keep up, resulting in a much higher percentage of poorer quality No. 2 fish, which fetch a lower price on the wholesale market.

That downward trend in quality was reversed last season as fishers produced a catch that featured a greater percentage of No. 1 fish. Improving quality continues to be a dominant theme for salmon fishers across the state. In 2002, the Kenai Peninsula Borough unveiled Kenai Wild, the Cook Inlet premium sockeye brand fishers hope will someday rival Copper River fish in name recognition. (See related story, page 9.) Funding for the local marketing program was renewed for the 2003 season, keeping pace at more than $400,000.

As the branding project has picked up steam, most fishers say they are paying more attention to icing their catch, as well as delivering it to the docks as quickly as they can.

As for the processors, barring a flood of fish hitting the docks in the

space of a few days, there should be enough capacity in the peninsula's five packing facilities to easily handle the sockeye run predicted for the upper inlet this summer.

Unlike many fishers in Bristol Bay and Southeast, upper Cook Inlet fishers should continue to see familiar faces when they deliver their fish.

As of press time, Inlet Salmon, Ocean Beauty, Pacific Star, Seward

Fish and Snug Harbor were all planning to buy fish this season.

Depressed prices and lower-than-average salmon returns continue to force some fishers to leave their boats ashore. The declining fishing effort among both driftnetters and setnetters continues even as legislators in Juneau wrangle with a number of reform bills --most were forwarded by the Joint Legislative Salmon Industry Task Force -- aimed at trimming the salmon fleets to a more economically viable number.

Nearly a third of the 585 permitted upper Cook Inlet drift fishers opted not to fish last season, a number that Roland Maw, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, sees as unlikely to change much in 2003.

Quickly throwing some numbers around, Maw figured with 500 driftnetters fishing and taking their portion of the region's sockeye catch (50 to 60 percent of the total) at maybe 65 cents a pound, the average fisher would be looking at a gross payoff in the neighborhood of $14,000.

Subtract fuel and crew costs, and that number begins to make people wonder if it's worth it, Maw said.

"Every fisherman is going to have to look at something like that and make a decision," Maw said of his rough sketch financial assessment. "Some very low-cost operations will go for it, and some guys who don't have other work lined up.

"But some guys will say, bottom line, 'Geez, I can go make more money doing something else.'"

Among the eastside setnetters, there was a 20 percent reduction in

participants last season, Beaudoin said.

Both of the upper Cook Inlet gear group associations, UCIDA and KPFA, have taken issue with how the Alaska Board of Fisheries regulates the Kasilof River fishery.

Last season, the Board of Fisheries infuriated both groups and eventually triggered court action when it changed the rules regarding Department of Fish and Game-declared emergency openings and then adopted a range of 150,000 to 300,000 sockeye for its in-river escapement goal on the Kasilof.

With a below average return of under 700,000 sockeye predicted for the Kasilof this summer, the escapement target is back at its previous range of 150,000 to 250,000 fish, according to Fish and Game research biologist Mark Willette.

Beaudoin said the local trade groups would continue to press for a return to the system that allowed state biologists, not the Board of Fisheries, the latitude to declare emergency openings for eastside setnetters when escapement goals had been met.

"Last year, we just wanted the court to recognize that the process and statute wasn't followed by the board," he said, referring to the unsuccessful attempt by KPFA and UCIDA to obtain a court injunction that would have nullified the decision by the board.

"We're still going to ask the attorney general to give further consideration to this."

There has been talk among the fishing groups of issuing a formal request to the fish board asking it to meet and reassess its management plan for the upper inlet prior to the June 26 opening of commercial fishing.

Sepp Jannotta is a reporter for the Homer News.

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