ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay this summer is either excellent, average or awful depending upon which river system fishermen choose.
So far, 13.5 million sockeye salmon had been caught and state biologist Jeff Regnart estimates the run will meet expectations and approach historic averages with about 23 million fish harvested.
After dismal seasons in 1997 and 1998, when catches averaged about 11.1 million sockeye, the fish are back. However, prices remain uncertain. And, as always, fishing takes a dose of luck.
While fishing has been generally steady across the bay, the Kvichak River run is weak. Forecasts projected 9.7 million fish there. However, with a weak run, Regnart now expects 6 million to 7 million.
Commercial fishing on the Kvichak has been closed down entirely. Fishermen fishing outside the nearby Naknek River usually intercept Kvichak fish, so biologists also pulled boats back from the mouth of the Naknek, limiting fishing to inside the river banks.
At Egegik - another potential Kvichak interception point - the fishing area has also been reduced.
Regnart said the weak returns will not affect subsistence fishing on the Kvichak. Runs peak on five-year cycles, often cresting to 20 million fish. This year is a peak year, but the fish are missing.
''Why? That's the big question,'' Regnart said. Enough fish escaped from the river, he said - ''for some reason, the ocean didn't treat them well.''
The market for Bristol Bay salmon is also uncertain. The slumping Japanese economy, which many blamed for weak prices two years ago, has rebounded. Yet prices look weak because of increased competition from Chilean farmed salmon, said Terry Gardiner, president of NorQuest Seafoods, a Seattle-based packing company.
''The market is a big, fat question mark,'' Gardiner said.
According to the state's Salmon Market Information Service, processors posted an initial price of 50 cents per pound. Prices are normally adjusted up after the season closes.
Last year, processors ended up paying fishermen 75 cents to $1 a pound.
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