Last year's statewide salmon harvest was in Alaska's top 15, but it also was the lowest-value catch since 1976, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
The agency released its overview of the 2002 salmon harvest and forecast for the 2003 harvest Friday. The forecast for 2003 is stronger, predicting the harvest of 150 million salmon, compared with about 131 million last year. Doug Mecum, director of the department's Commercial Fisheries Division, said fishermen shouldn't expect to get more money for those fish, however.
"We're looking at another 19 million fish. A lot of that's a pink salmon increase," he said. "Pink salmon are the lowest-value fish, so we're not really looking at much of a different picture on the value side."
Last year Alaska fishermen harvested about 87 million pinks. This year's forecast is for about 92 million, though Mecum said the harvest could be higher.
That doesn't bode well for the market, said seafood industry analyst Chris McDowell.
"Unless there is a major surplus reduction buy from USDA, the short version of a long story is that we're producing about 3.5 million cases of canned pinks a year, and we're selling about 3 million," he said.
Gov. Frank Murkowski asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week to buy $30 million in surplus canned pink salmon. Murkowski spokesman John Manly said the request is still pending.
The state also is expecting a larger chum harvest than last year. The sockeye salmon projection also is larger than last year's harvest, but the state's projections for sockeye, coho and king salmon are averages of previous harvests and not true forecasts, Mecum said.
"We just don't have any models that work to forecast those other species," he said.
But he said the coho forecast is usually pretty strongly correlated with pink salmon returns because both fish go out to sea at about the same time, so it's safe to forecast a stronger coho run based on a stronger pink run.
Mecum said the higher chum forecast is promising.
"It's predominantly hatchery chum salmon, so that's good news because hatchery chums make up a significant part of the income for fishermen in Southeast," he said.
Southeast fishermen caught 57.1 million salmon in 2002, for an ex-vessel value of $42.6 million, far below the values of the past five years, McDowell said. The ex-vessel value refers to the price processors pay to fishermen for their catches.
McDowell said Southeast's ex-vessel salmon value was $93 million in 2001, and ranged from $72 million to $90 million between 1997 and 2000.
The sharp drop in value for 2002 was due to a smaller harvest and a weaker chum market, McDowell said. The demand for Alaska chum had been high in Japan, where the fish is prized for its roe, while that country's chum harvest was down. The Japanese chum harvest went up again in 2002.
In 2002, Southeast fishermen caught 45 million pinks. This year's Southeast pink forecast is between 32 million and 55 million fish.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.