ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the University of Washington have released grim forecasts for Bristol Bay's next red salmon harvest.
Fish and Game predicts a total run of 16.8 million reds. That would put the commercial catch at 9.7 million fish, with the rest escaping upriver to spawn new generations in Bristol Bay, home of the world's largest wild sockeye harvest and the state's most valuable salmon fishery.
The university forecast is slightly more optimistic with a predicted run of 17.3 million reds and a commercial catch of 10.3 million.
The forecasts are bad news for Western Alaska fishermen, who said another dismal run would devastate the salmon-dependent region. The governor has declared disaster in the region three out of the last five years due to low salmon returns or prices, and next summer is setting up to be possibly worse still.
''We've got to learn to do more with less,'' Robin Samuelsen, a leading Bristol Bay fisherman from Dillingham, told the Anchorage Daily News. ''You're seeing a total collapse of the Western Alaska economy.''
Both catch forecasts pale in comparison to the average 25 million reds fishermen have netted in the bay over the last 20 years. Last year's catch was about 14 million fish.
In better times, a low run at Bristol Bay just meant better prices at the dock as the law of supply and demand kicked in. But last year, fishermen took home only 40 cents a pound, the lowest price since 1975, because of increasing competition from foreign fish farms.
Many fishermen doubt prices will improve next summer. And many might just stay home. Last summer, about 15 percent of the bay's 1,800-plus boat fishermen and 900 beach fishermen stayed away.
For many Western Alaska residents, however, there's no other work but salmon fishing. That's why the forecasts are so painful, said Walt Wrede, manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, which takes in much of the Alaska Peninsula including the important Egegik and Ugashik fishing districts along the east side of Bristol Bay.
''It's tough to visit our communities right now,'' Wrede said. ''People are genuinely scared, depressed and concerned about their future. They really want to stay in these communities but it's increasingly difficult to do so.''
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