Sockeye salmon returns to Douglas Island Pink and Chum's Snettisham hatchery should help buoy projected smaller chum catches this year, according to area managers.
DIPAC expects returns of about 350,000 sockeye to its Snettisham hatchery, about 30 miles south of Juneau. Last year, fishermen caught 40,000 sockeye from a return of about 150,000 fish, DIPAC Operations Director Eric Prestegard said.
And the fish should be bigger than last year, with the run split evenly between 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds. Last year's catch was made up of 4-year-olds, he said.
"This is the first year we're going to see a full brood complement," Prestegard said.
Those numbers should help a season where chum returns are expected to be smaller than last year's near-record 16 million fish. The chum forecast for Southeast Alaska calls for 10 million fish, a number that is closer to historical averages, according to Scott Kelley, regional management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
At peak last year, 150 of approximately 450 gillnetters in Southeast Alaska were fishing the Taku-Snettisham district, said Andy McGregor, Fish and Game Southeast regional supervisor for commercial fish. This year's numbers should equal last year's historical record, he said.
Additionally, sockeye returns in central Southeast Alaska aren't expected to be as good this year. The sockeye gillnet fishery at District 8 near Wrangell will be closed, McGregor said. And sizable chum returns to Lynn Canal and Taku Inlet should keep commercial fishermen in this area, he said.
Charlie Polk of Juneau, who has gillnetted in the area for more than 30 years, said DIPAC chums and the Snettisham sockeye project are helping keep local fishermen alive.
"The Snettisham program is later in the season after the chums are harvested," he said. "It enables gillnetters to fish the chum program, then go to Snettisham for the fall sockeye. It extends the season."
The increased sockeye numbers are tied to improvements at the hatchery started in 1997, Prestegard said. The communities of Juneau and Wrangell, along with the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, helped fund temporary improvements. With a $1.9 million dollar federal grant last year, the hatchery permanently enclosed raceways to protect young salmon from disease, he said.
DIPAC plans to add protective coating to the raceways this summer, completing the final step in the project, Prestegard said.
The new fishery is managed to sustain wild sockeye production, achieve escapement goals and assess program success, McGregor said. The goal is to place the commercial catch at 60 percent of the run, with 40 percent going to the hatchery, he said.
The hatchery sockeye run heats up in late July and early to mid-August, after wild sockeye return to the area, McGregor said. The commercial gillnet season in Southeast starts in mid-June.
Jerry Madden, executive director of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, said fishermen hope to net more sockeye this year by building on last year's experience.
"From what we understand with the lower chum return, this could be an important fishery," he said.
Prices for sockeye probably won't be as good as last year with carryover inventory in the canned market and a good frozen supply in Japan, according to Gunnar Knapp, a professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage who tracks salmon markets.
The value of the yen has decreased compared to the dollar, but a smaller Bristol Bay sockeye projection this year could help Southeast Alaska, Knapp said.
"The market always holds surprises, but it doesn't look to be a great year. If catches are small in Bristol Bay, it could help, or if the value of the yen goes up," he said.
Southeast sockeye garner substantially higher prices than elsewhere in the state, according to Chris McDowell, a seafood industry analyst with the McDowell Group in Juneau. Last year, Southeast sockeye were getting 96 cents a pound compared to 64 cents a pound in Bristol Bay, he said.
In addition, the Snettisham run should help a growing number of commercial salmon permit holders in Juneau who market their fish themselves, he said.
"Juneau has good air freight access. Snettisham will be a nice boost for those guys and processors as well," McDowell said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.