Dismal summer sockeye run predicted for Bristol Bay

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The forecast for Bristol Bay reds doesn't look promising.

Alaska's largest and most valuable salmon fishery is expected to produce an extremely low commercial red salmon catch next summer, according to government and university forecasts being released Tuesday in Seattle.

The state Department of Fish and Game was expected to predict a catch of 9 million fish. Last year's catch was 14 million reds -- in itself a weak harvest, considering the usual average of more than 25 million fish.

The University of Washington also has prepared a forecast that also is expected to be low. That forecast was done with funding primarily from Seattle-based fish-packing companies.

Should the numbers turn out as expected, business could be worse than even the disastrous catches of 1997 and 1998. That could add further injury to Alaska's salmon industry, which is already suffering from low prices because of competition from foreign farmed salmon.

''If the forecasts come out as rumored, then I think fishermen and processors face a very tough decision,'' Terry Gardiner, president of NorQuest Seafoods Inc., a major Bristol Bay salmon buyer, told the Anchorage Daily News. ''People have been struggling anyway, and there would have to be another round of downsizing.''

Hundreds of fishermen stayed home last summer following dismal predictions of a low catch and low prices. Only 13 packing companies showed up, compared with about 25 in the mid-1990s.

Last year's Bristol Bay fishery was worth about $34 million at the docks. More lucrative years in the early 1990s brought in more than $200 million.

Fishermen made about 40 cents a pound last year. That's the lowest price since 1975. In the late 1980s, Bristol Bay fish brought in more than $2 a pound.

Commercial catches depend on the strength of the salmon run into Bristol Bay's major rivers in June and July. State fishery managers monitor waters to ensure that enough salmon make it past commercial fishermen's nets to spawn new generations. The commercial fleet catches the rest of the fish.

Catch forecasts are often wrong. In 1997, the state expected a commercial catch of nearly 25 million reds but fishermen caught only half that number.

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