Taku king fishery could pour $900K into Juneau economy

Posted: Friday, June 17, 2005

The first commercial harvest of Taku River king salmon in 30 years is shaping up to be a rousing success, state biologists and fishermen said this week.

A rough estimate shows the Taku king gillnet harvest could pump as much as $900,000 into Juneau's economy, said Eric Norman, plant manager of Taku Smokeries/Fisheries.

That doesn't include the extra flurry of business generated around city docks.

"It isn't going to make anybody rich, but it's going to take a bit of the pressure off," said Juneau gillnetter Jev Shelton, who is one of the few remaining local gillnetters who netted Taku kings in the 1970s.

Going back "was interesting and a lot of fun," Shelton said.

"The Taku is phenomenal. Everything is just going well," said Scott Kelley, Southeast regional management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Though it may take years for Taku River kings to develop as a brand, they are getting picked up by major retailers such as Costco, according to Mike Erickson, with Alaska Glacier Seafoods.

"They have been very well received. This is just the first year," he said.

The average size of Taku River kings caught by gillnetters was a bit small this year, averaging about 14.5 pounds. Their per-pound price has now dropped to around $2 but stayed high at $3 longer than some had dared hope.

"They maintained their value much better than I thought they would," Erickson said.

The most recent total catch estimate for the Taku River gillnet king fishery is 21,000 fish.

The corresponding estimate for Stikine River kings - also a new spring fishery that had been closed for decades - is 20,000 fish.

Though up to 80 gillnetters filled Taku Inlet on a weekly basis, troll fishermen hardly touched the Taku kings this spring, instead focusing on fishing grounds around Sitka and Petersburg.

It will take a while for troll fishermen to find their sweet spots in the Taku, biologists explained. "Spending the money on fuel to go out and prospect probably wasn't appealing to them," said Brian Lynch, Fish and Game's Petersburg-based troll management biologist.

Throughout Southeast Alaska, trollers have hooked about 28,000 kings so far this spring.

Commercial and sport king fisheries on the Taku and Stikine rivers opened this year for the first time in decades after successful negotiations between Canadian and Alaskan regulators.

Both rivers have attracted a massive amount of attention from gillnetters.

"We had an unbelievable gillnet harvest in (the Stikine) of 8,000 fish" last week, Kelley said.

The two rivers' king fisheries are now winding down. Taku gillnetters will turn their attention to sockeye salmon next week, when that fishery begins, but will likely pick up another 1,500 kings in that fishery, biologists predicted.

The Stikine sockeye return may be one of the biggest ever. "We are probably looking at a run of about 300,000 fish," Kelley said.

State biologists don't produce numerical forecasts for Taku sockeye but they expect an average year.

The river's coho harvest later in the summer looks poor for both sport and commercial fishermen, Kelley cautioned.

In 2004, about 240,000 coho returned to the Taku. This year, state biologists are predicting between 55,000 and 60,0000.

"Coho fishing might be limited this year," Kelley said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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