Gillnet season opens strong in Southeast, slow in Lynn Canal

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

Discouraged by the poor sockeye harvest in Lynn Canal during the last half of the month, some gillnet fishermen in northern Southeast are heading toward the southern tip of the panhandle, where the fishing has been better.

"I expect a fair amount of effort to shift from northern areas down to Tree Point this week," said Scott Kelley, Southeast management coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division.

Kelley said 55 gillnetters harvested about 37,000 sockeye salmon in Tree Point during the four-day opening that began June 22.

"That is about 1.62 times the 10-year average," Kelley said.

But on the other end of the region, in Lynn Canal, 76 boats caught just 2,300 fish, one-third the 10-year average.

Part of the reason for the poor catch is a larger mesh-restriction for the gillnetters' nets in the fishing area that encompasses the canal, Kelley said.

A typical mesh-restriction for sockeye is about 5 3/8 inches, but Fish and Game is requiring 6-inch mesh openings in the nets to provide for enough escapement of fish into their spawning streams.

In 1998, the year the sockeye were hatched, the state had the second-lowest sockeye escapement on record, Kelley said.

"We're expecting a very poor run," he said.

Juneau gillnetter Jev Shelton said a slow start to the season, which began June 15, is not uncommon. But he said fishermen should get a better indication in the coming week of how the season will pan out.

"One of those (sockeye) runs tends to peak right around the Fourth of July or shortly after. So if we don't see a goodly number of them this week, I think we're in trouble," he said.

Shelton said the hatchery chum harvest also has been disappointing, because the fish are so small they're also getting through the larger mesh in the nets.

"It's a huge contrast to last year, when they were exceptionally large," he said.

It's unclear why the chum are smaller, but Kelley said it's probably related to rearing conditions common to their first year in the ocean. He also said forecasters are predicting a large chum return, and that often a large return means smaller fish.

Kelley said about 240 gillnetters have fished so far this season. The average from 1992 to 2001 is 444 per year, but last year's number, 395, was the lowest on record.

Despite the problems in northern Southeast, Doug Mecum, director of the commercial fisheries division, said sockeye and chum harvests around Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg have been above average.

"So far it looks like a pretty good start to the season," Mecum said.

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