Most species of salmon are returning to Southeast in force this season, but prices are down and fishermen are disappointed by a low catch of chum salmon, considered a valuable fish by net fleets.
Although commercial fishermen took a near-record 16 million chum in Southeast last year, state number-crunchers expect the harvest to drop to 10 million or lower this season.
"It's clear there was a downward shift in marine survival," said biologist Scott Kelley of the state Department of Fish and Game.
David Bedford of Southeast Alaska Seiners Association said that's bad news because chum eggs are hot in Japan right now and dog salmon are one of the few species commanding higher prices.
"Those are kind of the money-fish for the net fleets now," said Bedford from his Juneau office. "The Japanese market has, if not an insatiable taste for that product, at least a very strong demand for it."
The weak supply drove prices up for chum, said Terry Barry, general manager of Hoonah Cold Storage. However, prices have fallen for species showing large returns.
State biologists noted the coho return in Southeast could rank among the top five on record by season's end, but prices for Alaska silvers fell from an average of $1 per pound last year to 80 cents per pound last week, said Barry, who buys mostly troll-caught coho and chinook plus some chum.
Barry blamed the low prices on a flood of Chilean farmed coho in domestic and Asia markets.
Prices "are at the lowest levels that I've seen them in many years," Barry said. "We had a mid-season drop in the price, which is very unusual, due to the fact the inventory isn't moving."
Chilean exports of farmed salmon increased by 57 percent this year, said Dale Kelley of the Alaska Trollers Association.
"Price is a massive issue and it's not just the troll fleet. We are all being taken down by farmed salmon," said Kelley, who is not related to the state biologist. "They're flooding our markets with cheap fish."
Fisherman Stewart Ely said some processors are paying only 75 cents a pound for troll-caught coho.
"It's about starvation rates. It's very hard to make it at that amount," said Ely, who also noted the chinook fishery was better than average.
One of the surprises this season was a massive return of pink salmon to the Inside Passage. Two years ago pinks returned to Southeast in such staggering numbers scientists wondered whether the glut would jeopardize the run's offspring, due to spawn this year.
If too many salmon hatch in a stream, the baby fish can deplete the oxygen and die, said Kelley, the biologist, describing one possibility of a phenomenon called over-escapement.
"We were in totally uncharted waters. We'd never seen escapements like that before," he said. "We're seeing the results from that now and it's a mixed bag."
The offspring are returning to Southeast this season in near-record numbers, said Kelley, noting the catch already had exceeded the preseason forecast of up to 50 million fish. However, the returns are significantly higher in the southern Panhandle than in northern Southeast.
"It's not bad production - we still have pretty good pink salmon production on the north end, but not in the league as most of the southern systems," said Kelley.
Bedford, the seine representative, called the pink catch this season "fabulous."
"I've been hearing all the fleets are doing pretty darn well in terms of the level of harvest they've been seeing," Bedford said. "We're looking at landing as many as 50 to 60 million pink salmon, which is a banner year in terms of the number of fish."
The base price for pinks ranged from 15 to 18 cents a pound, down slightly from last year, said Chris McDowell, who tracks prices for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Sockeye prices also fell a bit, but that was offset somewhat by bigger catches, he said.
Sockeye made a strong return to Southeast and hit record levels at the Taku River south of Juneau. Gillnetter Jim Becker applauded the huge volume of fish but lamented the prices, saying fishermen are taking a pounding in the pocket from the farmed salmon industry.
"It's a good season," said Becker, a commercial fisherman the past 30 years. "But certainly we've had better."
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org