ANCHORAGE (AP) _ Bristol Bay's salmon harvest this year likely won't reach even the slim preseason forecast of 15.6 million reds. Notably absent from returns to all the river
systems are red salmon that spent two years in salt water before returning to spawn.
As of Monday morning, just under 6.7 million salmon had been netted in Bristol Bay, where fishing typically peaks around July 4. Total run so far is 9.5 million fish, nowhere close to half of the projected run of 24.3 million reds.
And it appears this year's peak may have come and gone.
``All of these runs look like they're early,'' said James Brady, central region supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ``We may already be at the peak or past the peak right now.'' Biologists out in the field agree that the run appears to be at least five days early.
Sockeye salmon normally spend two or three years in salt water after a year or two in fresh water. But while the ``three-ocean'' fish, those that spent three years in salt water, are returning in good numbers, two-ocean fish are notably absent.
A test fishery that nets salmon returning to the entire bay showed two-ocean fish made up just 6 1/2 percent of the sockeye netted, according to James Browning, a Fish and Game biologist in Dillingham. The forecast was for those fish to make up 51 percent of the catch.
``The main thing is those two-ocean fish comprise an important component of the Kvichak run,'' Brady said. That run is often the biggest in the bay, but it's been a bust the last two years. The run follows a five-year cycle that was expected to peak last year.
``In all the river systems, the percentages are all 90 percent or more three-ocean fish,'' said area management biologist Jeff Regnart. That doesn't bode well for next year, because next
year's three-ocean fish will come from the same flow of outgoing smolt that produced the dismal return of two-ocean salmon this summer.
Survival rates could be related, ironically, to mild winters when the fish were growing in the lakes, Regnart said. Sockeye spend either one year or two in fresh water before heading for the ocean.
With the mild winters in the region, young fish grew faster in fresh water and more went to sea after just one year, instead of waiting. Those smaller fish apparently had a much grimmer survival rate.
On top of that, when those fish headed out in 1999, the spring was extremely cold.
``We know that 1999 was a La Nina year and a continuation of cold water temperatures,'' Browning said.
Whatever the cause for the slim returns, the Kvichak escapement is almost certain to fall far short of the escapement goal of two million fish.
Just over 200,000 fish have escaped into the Kvichak so far, according to Regnart. That could have an echo effect when the offspring of those fish return in three to five years.
The lowest salmon catch in recent years was the 10 million fish netted in 1998. That harvest, coming on the heels of a 12-million-fish season, triggered a disaster declaration for the
Bristol Bay region.
It's too early to tell if this year's catch will test that low figure. It's clear that fishermen won't gather the 20.5 million sockeye caught last year, let alone the 30 or 40 million fish that were caught in the big years of the middle 90s.
Despite the low run, the posted price remains firmly stuck at 40 cents a pound. That's down from 65 cents last year. With post-season adjustments, fishermen have received well over $1 a pound as recently as 1999.
But tough competition from farmed fish and a declining yen have put major downward pressure on prices. There's also a hefty supply of canned salmon left over from last year.
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