Fish trade looks strong

Prices low, but numbers reasonable

Posted: Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Cook Inlet fishers aren't about to net the kind of green they hauled in during the roaring 1980s, but state salmon forecasts suggest they should make a decent living this year, a Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist said Tuesday.

"Prices are generally not great, but the numbers (returning fish) are reasonable," said Jeff Fox of the department's Soldotna office. "The Kasilof looks pretty good and the Kenai River's OK. It's too early to say on the Susitna."

An annual forecast of processing capacity published by the department March 1 predicted Cook Inlet processors were prepared to handle the expected harvests of chinook, sockeye and coho salmon. But a shortage of capacity exists for pinks and chum salmon. That is, the harvests for those species are expected to be larger than the available processing capability. That could mean some fish would be shipped elsewhere for processing.

Cook Inlet salmon catch estimates

Upper inlet, July 12

Chinook 9,625

Sockeye 1,153,254

Coho 28,119

Pink* 6,054

Chum 28,544

Total 1,225,596

Lower inlet, July 10 M?b>

Chinook 1,587

Sockeye 79,604

Coho 919

Pink 451,939

Chum 852

Total 534,901

* caught while targeting a different species

Salmon processing capacity is based on preseason surveys done in January and is measured as a combination of physical processing capacity and the intent of buyers and processors to purchase and process salmon, according to the department. It is considered "a snapshot" of the anticipated processing ability before the fisheries open.

Survey participation has been voluntary through this year, and not all processors have returned surveys. The department has estimated the effect of nonparticipating processors and figured those into its results. New regulations will make survey participation mandatory beginning in 2005.

This year, the department predicted that Cook Inlet would see about 11,000 chinooks, 3.83 million sockeye, 174,000 cohos, 3.64 million pinks and 174,000 chums.

According to the survey, nearly 2.4 million pink salmon in excess of processing capacity may be expected to enter Cook Inlet. Seiners catch pinks in lower Cook Inlet, but there is no pink fishery in the upper inlet. Fox said that is because a pink fishery would intercept coho salmon allocated for sport fishers in the Kenai River.

"It's a touchy issue," he noted.

Thus, uncaught pinks in large numbers will head up the Kenai River later this summer.

"You'll smell them in August," Fox said.

Some 3,000 more chums than existing capacity may also be expected, the survey said.

Salmon fishing began May 31 in the northern and central districts of upper Cook Inlet, May 24 in the southern district of lower Cook Inlet, and May 17 in the eastern district of lower Cook Inlet. Fishing in the Kamishak and outer districts of lower Cook Inlet began Jan. 1.

Regularly scheduled openings occur on Mondays and Thursdays. Fish and Game managers have two weekly options for 48-hour windows (Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday) in which fishing is closed to allow escapement up rivers. Under the area management plans, fisheries managers also have up to 36 hours weekly to use for emergency openings.

Early runs and late runs are easily handled. It's the peaks of the salmon runs that can be problematic.

"What typically happens is that the fish come in a glut. In a three- or four-day period, they hit in numbers that exceed what processors can handle," Fox said.

But yearly peaks are short-term phenomena that vary in impact depending on the species, he said. For instance, the main run of chinooks should hit later this week, but won't come close to plugging processors.

It's different with sockeyes. That peak should hit around Thursday or Monday, which are regularly scheduled fishing periods. As many as 800,000 fish in one day could be caught, if both drift and setnet fishers have peak days on the same day. That could meet or exceed capacity, Fox said. Often processors move some of the excess fish by shipping it elsewhere for processing.

Cohos are expected to peak next week in the drift fishery, which is generally taking early-run salmon headed to northern Cook Inlet rivers, Fox said. For setnetters, the peak will be in early August, he said.

Chums are expected to hit a peak next week.

A good run of pinks is predicted for the inlet this year, and the peak is expected after Aug. 10, Fox said.

According to the latest salmon market price-tracking information compiled by The McDowell Group Inc. and released by the department July 8, chinooks are earning an ex-vessel price of 75 cents to $1 per pound in the upper inlet and 40 cents a pound in the lower inlet. The lower inlet setnet price was $2 per pound. Sockeyes in the upper inlet were getting 50 to 60 cents a pound, 57 cents per pound in the lower inlet, and $1.20 per pound for setnetters. Chums were seeing 12 cents per pound, pinks 5 cents per pound and cohos about 20 cents per pound in both the upper and lower inlet areas.

Managing fish runs to ensure good commercial harvests, provide for sport and subsistence takes in rivers and to allow enough fish to swim up stream to spawn without a damaging over-escapement is no easy task, Fox said.

"It's not an exact science. It's more of an art form," he said. "Sometimes we're right. Sometimes we're wrong."

For instance, on Tuesday biologists faced a minor dilemma. Halfway through the season, the Kasilof River doesn't need more escapement at this time.

However, the Kenai River does. Preventing fish from moving into the Kasilof could be accomplished by allowing a setnet fishery. But that would also intercept Kenai River fish, so no fishery has been called, Fox said.

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