SITKA (AP) -- The chum salmon bonanza may be over in Sitka Sound, at least for now. Fisheries managers are estimating that returns to an area hatchery will be 75 percent lower next year than they were this season.
Marine conditions are much poorer for survival than they've been in the past five- or six years, a spokesman for the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association said.
''We're forecasting a range of about 850,000 fish returning next year, compared to about 3.5 million this year, so we're looking at about one-fourth the return,'' said Chip Blair, a data analyst with the association.
The past several years have seen record returns of chum to the association's Medvejie hatchery, attracting more than 200 seiners, gillnetters and trollers during the 2000 summer fishing season.
Even so, there were good markets for the fish, and competition among 14 processors kept ex-vessel prices high.
But fisheries biologists analyzing last summer's return saw lower numbers of three-year-old fish, leading them to believe the end of the up-cycle may be at hand.
Three-year-olds are a predictor of the following season's four-year-old fish, which make up the predominant class in the fishery.
''(In 2000), we had 3.2 million four-year-old fish, which was preceded by 1.4 million three-year-olds who came back in 1999,'' Blair said.
By using the same math, the 40,000 three-year-old fish returning in 2000 indicate a return of some 80,000 four-year-olds next year, he said.
Salmon forecasting is an inexact science but chum returns generally consist of 5 percent three-year-olds, 60 percent four-year-olds, 30 percent five-year-olds and 5 percent six-year-olds, Blair said.
The poor return of three-year-olds this year came as something of a surprise, because the fish in this class were larger than average when released as fry from the hatchery.
''We actually had to buy extra food to hold them until their release date,'' Blair told the Daily Sitka Sentinel. ''They were healthy and large, so we expected them to do quite well, but it doesn't appear to be the case.
''Once we released them, there's not a lot we know.''
Hidden Falls and other association-run closer to Juneau also are expecting declines in chum returns, but not to the magnitude anticipated at Medvejie, aquaculture officials said.
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