Commercial fishermen 'tickled pink' over salmon prices

Posted: Friday, July 23, 2010

"I love it. I wish I would have done this 10 years ago," fishing vessel Kira captain Bucky Eddy, 30, said as his hands mended gill net. "I am definitely not upset with my chosen profession."

Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

Eddy is just one of the many Juneau-area fishermen content with this year's prices as the commercial salmon season approaches the halfway point in the gillnet and seine seasons.

Another is Rick Fitch, captain of the Mollie Lindell, who has been fishing for 52 years.

"Prices were better 20 years ago," Fitch said. "That was when diesel fuel was 13 cents and a good boat could be bought for about $2,500."

Fitch, wife Patti and their Belgian barge dog, Keta (Tlingit for dog salmon), love to fish in the Juneau waters, especially when prices are climbing.

"I am optimistic that they will continue to rise," Fitch said. "Everything else costs a lot more now-a-days, but this is a lifestyle. I raised my kids on a boat."

Juneau-area fishermen basically target six salmon runs in District 11, an area essentially made up of Taku Inlet and Stephens Passage. Two wild runs head for the Chilkat and Chilkoot River systems near Haines, and enhanced runs from DIPAC Fisheries, Amalga Harbor, Boat Harbor, Gastineau Channel and Limestone Inlet provide stock as well.

Prices are currently hovering around 70-75 cents per pound for chums and coho, or $1 dressed for coho and 30 cents for pinks. Sockeye salmon are the prized catch, fetching $1.70.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game uses the weekly catch of sockeye to help determine openings and closings for the gillnet fleet, as they want a certain percentage to reach their spawning grounds. Seine boat fishing is driven by pink salmon abundance. Coho influence the driftnet openings later in the season.

The only link between gillnet and seine seasons is that both start the third Sunday in June. The two major gillnet fisheries in Lynn Canal are the two wild sockeye runs and the DIPAC chum run, where 50 million fish are released at Amalga Harbor and 15 million more are set free at Boat Harbor. DIPAC also releases in Gastineau Channel and Limestone Inlet.

"In recent years, chums have been the fish these guys are after," ADF&G Juneau Area Commercial Fisheries Biologist Kevin Monagle said. "The value and abundance of chums and their average 7- to10-pound weight is attractive compared to a sockeye's 5 to 6 pounds."

The seine fishery is typically open for 15 hours on a Sunday. As managers from the various districts fly the river systems and see adequate escape and buildup of fish, time and area is increased in conservative fashion so seiners catch more fish as the season progresses. It will eventually progress to two days on and two days off if the run strength is strong. In bigger years, there has even been a four days on, one off schedule.

The gillnet fishery will open on a Sunday at noon and, depending on the run strength of sockeye salmon, it could be anywhere from a two- to four-day opening. Currently, the gillnet fleet has been only getting two days and the seine fleet is not even getting a mid-week shot.

"Unfortunately, the pink return is very poor this year to northern Southeast Alaska," Monagle said. "Really the only area open for them is a little index area because we want the catch information, it helps us determine if things are changing, developing, and what is out there."

The pink volume usually makes fishing worthwhile and catching "money-fish," such as sockeye and chum, is a a bonus. The ADF&G won't open an area though if pinks aren't in the mix, which is why boats move from town to town, or district to district, as the season runs progress.

"Seiners are very efficient catching machines," Monagle said. "Sometimes as much as 90 percent of the pink salmon harvest is seine harvest. A year like this is frustrating for fishermen because we are faced with a very weak sockeye run up the Taku River, and near Haines the run is coming in poorly. We know guys want to put these chums away, and we want them to as well, but at the same time we have to achieve our wild escapements for sockeye."

An international treaty with Canada also dictates escapement, as the ADF&G has obligations that mandate wild stock priority.

DIPAC had record returns last year and District 11 had a total harvest of more than 900,000 chum salmon. Multiplying by a 7-8 pound average fish at 45 cents per pound made for a good payday. The projected harvest for enhanced salmon in District 11 this year is more than 1.5 million. The ADF&G also believes that more gillnetters may target pinks over the next few years as pink prices rise. Prince William Sound is already looking at 50 cents a pound this year.

For fishermen like Bucky Eddy, there is more to it than the bottom line.

"It never is all about the money ... where else do you work like hell and not make near what you think you should, and yet you have a smile on your face, sore muscles and fish scales?" Eddy said. "We do this because it is a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and ... OK, sometimes the money is worth it."

Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.



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