Commercial harvest up; prices down; outlook hazy

Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2001

The peak of the Cook Inlet sockeye salmon run seems to be here. Thirty-thousand of the red fish entered the Kenai River on Sunday and Monday, 40,000 Tuesday and another 40,000 or more were expected Wednesday, according to state figures.

Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, said commercial harvest as of Wednesday had reached 1.3 million sockeye -- coincidentally, the same as all of last year's harvest. As a result of the strong run, fishers have been given additional fishing opportunities.

"We fished through our regular period on Monday and extended it into Tuesday," Shields said.

Setnet fishers in the Kasilof section had it even better, with their nets in the water -- out to 1/2 mile -- Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"They're a little strong and a little early, (so) we're targeting the surplus escapement to the Kasilof River," Shields said. "With today's escapement, it puts the Kasilof over 200,000 fish."

The top end of the escapement range is 250,000 sockeye.

As a rising tide lifts all boats, a rising run benefits multiple users. Dipnet fishers have been meeting their bag limits in just a few hours, and the reds have been hitting the lines of in-river sport fishers as well.

"When you're putting 30,000 fish in the river day after day after day, it's good news. It's better than putting the fish in all at once," Shields said.

The total return to upper Cook Inlet is expected to be right on target with preseason estimates of 4.2 million sockeye, with a projected harvest of 2.7 million.

The only fly in the ointment at this point is low prices.

"When I went halibut fishing earlier this year, I paid 50 cents a pound for bait herring," said Kenai driftnetter Steve Tvenstrup. "I don't understand why they can't pay more than 60 cents a pound for sockeye. I may as well use my salmon as halibut bait.

"That's ridiculously low. They haven't been this low in my 29 years in this fishery."

He said if next year's prices follow the same downward trend, he may just open up his wallet and ask his processor how much he should pay to be allowed to go fishing.

Tvenstrup said the average catch per boat the last period was around 1,100 pounds.

"All in all, the season is not too shabby," he said. "It will come in at least at the projection, if not over.

"Now if the price gets up, we might make some money finally," he added. "At this price, we'll have to harvest 6 million fish to make money."

Prices last year for sockeye were about 20 cents a pound higher than today. But about this time last year, after a cautiously promising start, the sockeye run dried up. Shields said a lot of people remember that and have been calling his office, asking if this year will be the same.

"They've had good harvests down in Kodiak. Some of the intercept fisheries have done well, and that could be an indication there are more fish on the way," he said Wednesday. "Today will be an important period to tell us where we're at.

"When we put drifters out and they go fishing, that's our best indicator of what's out there."

Today's period -- from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- is a full-district fishery, though next week driftnetters will be restricted to the corridor by regulation. The first period on or before July 25, and the one after -- Monday and Thursday of next week -- driftnetters are restricted to allow coho into the upper inlet.

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