It’s been a record year for commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska, with more than 100 million salmon caught in the region for the first time ever.
Coho have returned to Southeast in the highest numbers since 1994, leading the troll fishery to almost double last year’s catch. Purse seiners have topped their previous overall salmon catch record by more than 10 million. Gillnetters’ top three years on record are the last three, with this year the highest. Pink salmon have also returned to Southeast in record numbers, trollers have caught more chum than they have since statehood, and the season isn’t over yet.
“Southeast as a whole has had a very strong salmon season,” said Pattie Skannes, troll management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It’s been a particularly great year for all except Chinook.”
The king salmon catch is determined annually based on a treaty with Canada. Trollers caught 84,653 kings in six days, fulfilling the annual troll treaty allocation, so there was no second opening.
The record breaking salmon returns are likely due in part to favorable marine conditions over the past year.
“Generally it looks like there’s been incredible marine survival in the ocean for both coho and pink salmon,” said Leon Shaul, Coho Research Project Leader for Southeast Alaska in the commercial fisheries division of Fish and Game. “Both spend one year in the ocean, so apparently they encountered incredible conditions.”
More coho returned to Southeast Alaska in 1994 than in 2013, but power trollers now have a higher efficiency rate with their catch, Shaul said, leading to the highest coho catch rates per boat on record. This is also the first season in many years the coho fishery has not closed for a period of time in the summer.
The wild coho return (not catch) is projected at 5.73 million.
Hatcheries’ contribution is projected at around 29 percent, Shaul said, highlighting the Klawock River Hatchery on Prince of Wales, which has produced “a phenomenal number of coho salmon.” For the last 20 or so years, hatcheries’ contribution to the coho run has hovered at around 20 percent, he said, but that number has increased “largely because of this one hatchery.”
Many of those coho are caught off the outer coast of Prince of Wales, but some are caught off Sitka, as well, he said.
Catch rates for coho in general were evenly distributed across Southeast, Skannes said. The all-gear commercial coho harvest is projected at 3.32 million. (In 1994, still the record-holding year, that projection was 4.79 million.)
Dan Gray, Management Coordinator for Southeast Region, said drift gillnetting and purse seining are both at an all-time high for all-species salmon catch.
For gillnetting, the top three years on record are the last three years. So far in 2013, gillnetting is at 5.75 million fish. The previous high, in 2012, was 5.2 million; 2011 totaled a little less, but still around 5.2 million.
Gillnetting is still open, so that number will increase.
For purse seining, which is currently closed, preliminary totals are around 94 million. The previous high of 81.8 million was in 1999.
Gray said the overall totals consist of chum salmon in the largest quantities, followed by pink salmon.
Pink and coho salmon returns have been trending upward in odd years, Shaul said.
One exception this year is for the Taku River pink run, which was below average. Shaul attributes this to early marine survival rates and localized conditions around the inlet.
Pink salmon have become more and more odd-year dominant since the 1990s, with even years trending downward, Shaul said.
“The whole reason for the cycle in pink salmon is somewhat of a mystery in itself,” he said. “It’s hard to put your finger on any one thing.”
Trollers’ pink harvest is at about 684,000.
Skannes said trollers harvested 1.1 million chum this year. This is the highest since statehood.
Shaul said part of the reason the chum catch rate is so high is because more trollers are targeting chum.
“Trollers have really gone after chum the last three years particularly,” he said.
Skannes said the number of troll permits fished this year was similar to last year.
Coho weights were also better this year than the last couple of years, she said.
“Everything that went to the ocean last spring seems to have done quite well,” Shaul said.
• Contact Outdoors reporter Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com.