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ANCHORAGE - State fisheries biologists are forecasting a total run of 137 million salmon during the upcoming commercial harvest season, which would make 2008 the 18th largest harvest on record since 1960.
The total harvest is expected to include 672,000 Chinook salmon, 47.1 million sockeye salmon, 4.4 million coho salmon, 66 million pink salmon and 18.7 million chum.
David Harsilla, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association in Seattle, has already voiced his concerns to Gov. Sarah Palin that the processing capacity for the upcoming season will not be sufficient. Harsilla is asking that one or more foreign companies be allowed to enter Bristol Bay for the 2008 season and purchase salmon directly from the fleet.
Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said another possibility would be for the state Department of Fish and Game to allow more aggressive harvests as the peak of the run starts to build.
"In big (run) years there seems to be the potential for more aggressive early season fishing, before escapements are reached," Waldrop said. "There is still time to correct for overharvest."
Harsilla noted that the 2008 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon processing capacity survey indicated processors are prepared to purchase and process 36.3 million sockeye this summer.
However, the report also states that "individual processors may still impose limits per period, or for some limited time, because of quality concerns, tendering limitations, daily processing capacity limitations at specific plants, or other operational considerations," he said.
Over the past few seasons in Bristol Bay the fishermen have been troubled by ongoing overescapement into most of the river systems, plus persistent and restrictive delivery limits from processors, Harsilla said.
"The lack of processing capacity has resulted in loss of income to fishermen and the region's communities," he said. "We take special note that the processor capacity survey does not nearly adequately address limits or the welfare of the Bristol Bay fleet. Coupled with continued low salmon prices paid to the fleet, we are seeking relief from the economic dark clouds that are hanging over our heads."
Harsilla said the fleet anticipates continued overescapements, and even more restrictive delivery limits in 2008 if the status quo is given a nod of approval.
Some 13 processors were included in the state's survey for the upcoming Bristol Bay season. State biologists noted that Bristol Bay has a point estimate of 40.3 million sockeye, within a range of 29.9 million to 50.6 million fish.
"There's more to it than having adequate harvesting capacity," said Waldrop, who urged consideration of other solutions for greater processing capacity. "It's the surges (in the Bristol Bay sockeye run) that hurt the most. We think that in large forecast years, there are other regimes that might be put in place to take the peak out of the run."
Waldrop said the state has already played a very important role, doing an early survey just on the Bristol Bay fishery.
"In doing this survey, the dialogue has opened up for further consideration of other potential solutions, and it is a dialogue that allows for a wider range of things," he said.
The Pacific Seafood Processors Association, Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and others have already weighed in on the problem, he said.
The forecast also predicted that the two largest pink salmon producing areas in the state, Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound, would have modest returns this year.
A pink salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska of only 20 million fish is predicted this year, just 43 percent of the average for the region over the last 11 years. The forecast for the total Alaska pink salmon harvest is about the same as the average statewide pink salmon harvest for the last 47 years, biologists said.
In contrast to pink salmon, the sockeye and chum salmon harvests in the state are expected to be up in 2008. Bristol Bay is anticipating one of its larger sockeye harvests in recent years and a statewide sockeye salmon harvest of 47.1 million salmon would put the 2008 sockeye harvest in the top 10 since 1960. A potential statewide chum salmon harvest of 18.7 million fish also falls within the top 10 chum harvests since statehood.
The 2008 Chinook salmon harvest prediction of 672,000 salmon marks an increase of 110,000 fish compared to the 2007 harvest, while the projected coho salmon harvest of 4.4 million salmon is similar to the most recent 10-year average of 4.6 million coho salmon.
In view of the moderate level of the expected 2008 salmon returns, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will not conduct a statewide salmon processing capacity survey in 2008, officials said. The agency previously conducted a processing capacity survey for Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, the results of which were released Feb. 11.