Wild salmon appear to be running at their strongest in more than a decade and their asking price isn't half bad either.
However Juneau fishermen, such as Matt Cole, have good reason for guarded optimism. Cole was so disappointed with last summer's rock-bottom prices for king salmon that he gave up after a few days' work and trolled for lower-grade dog salmon instead.
"I wouldn't kill a king for 65 cents a pound," he said.
But now kings and coho are running in high numbers up and down the West Coast - from California to Alaska.
"Kings have been excellent,'' said Brian Lynch, Southeast Alaska regional troll management biologist. He noted that there have been record king salmon returns from the often-dismal, dammed-up Columbia River, the origin of a quarter of Alaska's harvest in a typical year.
And if it's any indication of an improving trend in wild salmon prices, the payoff on the spring 2004 trolling season, which ended today, was much better than spring 2003. The price for kings was $3.03 per pound this spring compared to last spring's average of $1.50, according to Lynch. The positive news has kicked up interest within Juneau's small fleet of trolling vessels, which will join the rest of Southeast Alaska for the first general summer troll harvest opening Thursday.
"It sounds like there are going to be a lot more boys going out,'' said Cole, 24, as he prepared his 28-and-a-half-foot El Nido on Tuesday for its 17-hour journey to Cape Cross. "Hopefully, this is a good year."
Alaska's fishing industry has been hit hard by the introduction of lower-priced farmed salmon. Taku Smokeries general manager Eric Norman said the higher prices for Alaska salmon in 2004 point to "renewed interest in wild salmon." He added, "I don't think fishermen will have any trouble selling their fish."
The summer troll quota for kings in Southeast is 383,500, with a troll treaty quota of 286,800 fish. It's the largest summer troll quota since 1985, when the Pacific Salmon Treaty was signed by the United States and Canada to allocate the harvest of transboundary fish, according to calculations by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The first summer troll opening is expected to last at least 10 days.
Experts attribute the abundance of kings and cohos to very high survival rates in the Pacific Ocean over the past few years.
"It's a cyclical sort of thing. You'll see it in almost any animal species over time," Lynch said.
The price for power trolling permits, set by the market, also jumped dramatically this year. Permits were a bargain in 2003 at $13,000, when many Southeast Alaska trollers chose to stay home, but now they are about $22,000 to $23,000 and are in short supply, fishermen said.
"I know some guys who did pretty well by buying their permits last year,'' Cole said.
Tenakee Springs fisherman Zeb Strong, 32, rues the fact that he will have more salmon-hungry trollers to compete with this year.
"I think this is going to be a more stressful year,'' he said.
The fleet will likely spread out in areas south and north, concentrating in areas such as Dahl Island and Shelikof Bay to the open waters of Fairweather Grounds, one of the largest salmon grounds in Southeast, Lynch said.
"Boats that can handle that weather ... generally do quite well," he said.
Strong said he's heading his 43-foot troller - equipped with freshly acquired items, such as library books, Fruit Loops and Nesquick - for Elfin Cove. He expects to be out for several months. "Hopefully, we'll get better prices this year."
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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