Thanks largely to the hatchery program run by Douglas Island Pink and Chum, this summer's chum salmon harvest is setting records in the Juneau area.
It's ``a banner year'' both for commercial fishermen and for the hatchery program, says DIPAC Executive Director Jon Carter.
Through mid-July, the commercial catch has exceeded 1999's healthy numbers almost every week in the Taku Inlet/Stephens Passage and Lynn Canal districts, according to DIPAC's records.
``Gillnetters have done extremely well on summer chums,'' confirmed Andy McGregor, a commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
McGregor said the local catch is on pace to shatter the record, with the hatchery responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the run.
``If somebody thought they could walk on water, this was the year to try it: I don't think you could sink through the chums,'' said Juneau gillnetter Jev Shelton. ``They couldn't be avoided.''
At the peak, probably 250 gillnetters were out in Taku Inlet/Stephens Passage and Lynn Canal, McGregor said. They've been getting from 20 to 25 cents a pound, which ``compares favorably with recent years,'' he said.
Chum, the ``money fish'' for the hatchery, also is helping with DIPAC's cost recovery, Carter said.
The nonprofit organization has harvested 1,375,000 chums, slightly over the previous record set in 1996 and well over the 1999 catch of 870,000, Carter said. With an increased price through contracts with three processors, DIPAC is going to make about $4.5 million on the harvest, nearly three times what it made last year, he said.
Meanwhile, gillnetters have caught about 1.1 million chums locally and are projected to take 1.15 million, McGregor said. That's up from 678,000 last year.
The projected harvest of 550,000 in the Taku Inlet/Stephens Passage district is well over the record, set last year, of 425,000, McGregor said. And the projection of 600,000 chums harvested in the Lynn Canal district also easily beats the record of 529,000 set in 1994, he said.
The roughly 55-45 split between DIPAC and the commercial fleet doesn't meet DIPAC's target of providing fishermen with 60 percent of the harvest. But the actual volume is so high that everyone is doing well, anyway, Carter said.
DIPAC releases hatchery chum at four locations. Returns at two locations are for commercial harvest, while two are reserved for DIPAC.
Over the years, the overall catch has swung from 70 percent for the gillnet fleet to 70 percent for the hatchery, Carter said. That fluctuation has been largely due to the management of wild stocks by the state, he said.
Favorable conditions for ocean survival have yielded plentiful chums in recent years, but it won't last forever, Carter cautioned. For now, though, the bountiful chums have inspired a more intense effort from processors, Carter said.
``It's a hungrier processing sector,'' agreed Dave Ohmer, Petersburg plant manager for NorQuest Seafoods, which returned to Juneau this summer because of the large numbers of fish.
DIPAC also supports itself with revenue from tours of its hatchery on Channel Drive.
About 120,000 tourists visited the hatchery last year, and this year's pace is similar, Carter said. ``There's more and more competition for the tourist attention, so that dollar probably does get sliced thinner and thinner.'' There are now hatchery tours in Ketchikan and Sitka, too, he said.