Pink salmon wasted as fish flood Valdez

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Commercial fishermen were pleased to see an unexpectedly large run of pink salmon arrive this summer at the fish hatchery at Valdez. But fish processors have been unable to keep up with the huge run and plants and fishermen are dumping pinks into the ocean as waste.

Many of the pink salmon are losing their flesh color and quality as they languish in the waters around the hatchery. As many as 2 million could be tossed by the end of the month.

Some salmon first will be stripped of their valuable roe, or eggs, under an emergency rule issued by the state Department of Fish and Game.

Such roe stripping normally is illegal in Alaska, to discourage waste in the commercial fisheries. But in this case, state officials said, it was wise to allow fishermen and processors to haul in the deteriorating fish, extract some value from them and then dump the carcasses, which have little or no market value, said David Bedford, deputy commissioner of Fish and Game.

''This is hardly how we do business on an ongoing basis,'' he said Thursday. ''But it's a bumper crop of fish that we didn't expect to show up. We relaxed the restrictions to avoid Lord knows how many salmon washing up on the local beaches.''

The Solomon Gulch hatchery, operated by the nonprofit Valdez Fisheries Development Association, expected a pink salmon return of 9.9 million fish this summer. Each spring, the hatchery releases 120 million tiny pink salmon fry into the ocean, with the expectation that most will not survive to return 18 month later.

''One whale could go right through a huge school of fry heading into the ocean and wipe them out,'' said Dave Cobb, the association's business manager.

The pinks now returning to the Valdez hatchery apparently were unusually successful in avoiding such perils. Instead of 9.9 million fish, the return looks to be 20 million, Cobb said.

On top of that, up to 6 million wild pink salmon also are expected.

The fish have overwhelmed processing plants and ships around Prince William Sound, Cobb and state officials said.

The roe, which can account for up to 20 percent of the worth of a typical Alaska pink salmon fishery, can be salvaged from some of the female fish. Roe is a popular delicacy in Japan and can bring wholesale prices of several dollars per pound.

Under the emergency rule, fishermen can dump up to 1,000 pounds of whole carcasses into waters at least 600 feet deep. Fishermen and processing plants dumping larger amounts first must grind the salmon into pieces no larger than half an inch across.

The state also required that processors and fishermen explore other options, including giving fish to food banks or the public.

Valdez fishermen Ed Day said he's grateful the state is allowing roe stripping. However, he's annoyed that Gov. Frank Murkowski this spring rejected requests to bring Russian ships into Alaska waters to help process salmon.

Because existing processors can't handle the run, Day said, he and other seiners have been put on catch limits.

Bedford and Cobb said salmon returns are hard to predict and the explosive Valdez return was a surprise. The state did an industry survey that found adequate processor capacity.

''You make your predictions based on the best science you have available to you,'' Cobb said. ''We're not God. We can't determine what's going to return every year. And neither can the governor.''

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