Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishers are once again facing the prospect of a dismal season.
If early indications are correct, area commercial fishers will be hampered by a number of factors this season, including competition from farmed salmon, a mediocre sockeye return and poor overall demand for their product.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that the entire sport and commercial sockeye harvest for upper Cook Inlet will be 2.2 million fish. Of that, about 1.8 million are expected to be taken by commercial fishers, according to Jeff Fox, commercial fisheries biologist with the department.
Fox said the harvest would be lower than average, and that commercial fishers would likely see few emergency openings this season.
"There probably won't be a whole lot of extra fishing time," he said.
The department's estimate is based on a projected total return of 3.7 million sockeye to Cook Inlet. The run is managed for an escapement goal of 1.5 million sockeye in upper inlet streams.
Last year, upper inlet fishers harvested about 1.8 million sockeye, one of the poorest harvests on record. According to the department's annual commercial fishing forecast, this year's harvest, if it goes as expected, will again be about half of the 20-year average harvest in upper inlet of around 4 million fish.
Those numbers do not bode well for area commercial fishers, especially when expected prices are taken into account.
Fish processors won't talk prices before the season, but many in the industry believe processors will be paying historically low prices for inlet sockeyes.
"You can call any of the processors, but I doubt they will give you a number. Traditionally, nobody commits themselves to a price," said Brent Johnson, a Cook Inlet setnetter. "The best I've heard, it might be comparable to last year, or it might be 10 cents (per pound) lower."
Johnson said he's not expecting 2002 to be a banner year for commercial fishers.
"We're looking to see the worst year ever," he said. "I expect prices to be low, and I don't expect to have a lot of fishing time."
Paul Dale owns Snug Harbor Seafoods in Kenai. He said he doesn't expect to pay more than last year's price, which was about 65 cents per pound.
"If a person were to guess, we would have to expect that pricing wouldn't be as high as last year. We would have to expect that the market won't support even the prices from last year, unfortunately," Dale said.
He added that could change slightly, based on how fisheries in other parts of the state fare.
"There are lots and lots of indicators," he said.
One other area processor, Jeff Berger of Deep Creek Custom Packing in Ninilchik, said prices for Cook Inlet sockeyes are normally based on what is paid for Kodiak and Bristol Bay fish.
"What the price ends up being depends on the harvest in Kodiak, Chignik and Bristol Bay," he said.
Those areas haven't been getting much for their fish, Berger said.
"I've heard rumors of very low prices."
Last year, fishers in Bristol Bay got just 40 cents per pound for their sockeyes.
In Kodiak, fishers earlier this year refused to fish for five days until a processor offered them 59 cents per pound for sockeyes.
Until the early 1990s, it was not uncommon for Cook Inlet sockeye to fetch as much $1.50 per pound. That, along with strong sockeye runs, made commercial fishing a lucrative business.
However, in recent years inlet fishers have seen fish prices plummet.
Decreased demand for Alaska salmon in Japan, combined with a glut of farmed salmon from Norway, Canada and Chile on the market, has pushed prices steadily downward.
This season, fishers may be lucky to get 60 cents per pound for their sockeyes.
According to estimates by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute released June 16, upper Cook Inlet driftnet fishers can expect to see a price in the neighborhood of 50 cents per pound for sockeye salmon.
Many fishers are being forced to choose between giving up the life they've always known, finding alternative ways to make a living in the industry and calling it quits.
Some fishers said they believe that marketing Cook Inlet salmon as a unique, high-quality product is the only way to buoy prices.
A salmon branding program to test that theory was begun this year. However, that effort is still in its infancy, and few fishers will be involved this season.
According to Gary Fandrei, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, many commercial fishers have, or are, on the verge of simply giving up.
"There's still some optimism (among fishers) out there, but it's getting harder and harder to find that," Fandrei said.
He said he believes a little more than half of all Cook Inlet commercial fishing permit holders will fish this year, though he added commercial fishers who are based on the peninsula don't seem ready to give up just yet.
"Most of the people I deal with down here (on the peninsula) are planning to fish," he said.
For those who do plan on testing the water this year, the first upper Cook Inlet commercial fishing openings are scheduled to begin Thursday morning.
All inlet area commercial set- and driftnet fisheries will be open, with the exception of the Kenai-East Foreland sections of the northern subdistrict.
Clarion reporter Marcus K. Garner contributed to this story.
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