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Gillnet season opens today

High hopes for good harvests this year

Posted: June 18, 2011 - 9:00pm
The F/V Silver K leaves a Juneau harbor through Gastineau Channel on Saturday, heading for fishing grounds that will open today at noon for the commercial gillnet fishing fleet.   Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
The F/V Silver K leaves a Juneau harbor through Gastineau Channel on Saturday, heading for fishing grounds that will open today at noon for the commercial gillnet fishing fleet.

Starting today, the gillnetters are out. Fish processors say the season looks promising and the folks on the water agree. “We’re pretty optimistic” is a phrase repeated by those spoken to in the industry.

Chris Knight, executive director of United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, is one of them. He expects better sockeye returns than last year. He added that chum returns were also busy last year and expects this again.

“Sockeye returns have come in fairly strong so we hope it’s good predictor for us,” said Knight. He said reports from the Copper River indicate really strong numbers, so fleets on similar ocean survival rates should also expect good returns.

Knight isn’t the only one getting good signs of things to come. Taku Fisheries Vice President and General Manager Eric Norman said preliminary catches from the trollers around Icy Strait that intercept the fish indicates this will be a busy year.

Alaska Glacier Seafoods Chief Executive Officer Mike Erickson also said scouting reports indicate a lot of fish around, making everyone there excited for this year.

Erickson predicts the fleets will see more fish than last year, and has high hopes for the sockeye salmon. Norman also predicts that pink numbers will be high.

Another good sign is the prices. Knight said some prices went up around 20 percent last year.

“This year prices look even stronger and we expect relatively decent chum returns and hope for decent sockeye returns,” said Knight.

The processors agree. Norman said that, although it’s too early to be sure, initial prices indicate chums could go up to 80 cents a pound, which he said is the highest it’s been for around 20 years.

“From our perspective, the price forecast is looking to be up another 10-20 percent this year,” Knight said. “Particularly, pink and chum have gone up because of steady demand from Asian markets.”

Erickson concurred with the Asian factor, saying that plays a huge role.

Norman predicts that chum will be the vast majority of the fish caught. He said these small fish have produced a larger demand over the last several years, especially with an increased demand for high-protein foods. Erickson said it was less than a decade ago that these fish were hard to sell, but that’s all changed.

Erickson said there won’t be a lot of problems selling fish in this market, which plays into better ex-vessel prices.

“It looks like strong market conditions that require strong ground prices,” he said. “There is a market demand that will allow for that.”

Knight said the season also represents a local economic boost just from the fishermen.

“For Juneau, this is a fairly significant fishery with excess of 100 resident permits in town who prosecute the gillnet fishery,” he said, remarking on how that number will go up soon with vessels from the outside bringing fishermen, and even whole families. He expects more boats in 3 to 4 weeks coming in to target the chum fisheries with harbors targeting the gillnetters, saying this has a huge economic impact.

“It’s a fairly significant revenue stream for local businesses and the community at large,” he said.

Knight said there were close to 300 active gillnetters here, not counting the crews.

The unsure fish appears to be coho, which Knight said had average to poor returns last year and the Department of Fish and Game reports the returns to be consistent this year. The Department’s 2011 Southeast Alaska Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan states 2010 coho contributions to gillnet fisheries were estimated to be 252,000 fish, around 50 percent of total harvests.

The report’s pink salmon harvest forecast for the Southeast is 55 million fish, with a range of 43 to 67 million. The report states the majority of pinks are taken by purse seine gear over gillnetters.

The report also states that the chinook forecast returns to the Stikine and Taku Rivers are especially significant, as these in Districts 8 and 11 above base harvest levels will not count against the 2.9 percent drift gillnet harvest ceiling allowed under the chinook salmon allocation plan adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Preseason terminal runs forecast 30,000 large adults with an allowable catch of 190 fish in the Stikine River and 40,986 large adults allowing for an allowable catch of 1,533 fish for the Taku River.

The report also states the projected region-wide forecast of hatchery chum salmon returns for 2011 is expected to be 8.6 million.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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