ANCHORAGE - Scientists at the University of Washington are predicting another gloomy harvest next year for Alaska's premier Bristol Bay red salmon fishery. They also say prospects for good prices look bleak.
Next year's Bristol Bay catch is expected to be about 13.8 million reds from a total run of around 21.5 million fish, according to a forecast from the Fisheries Research Institute at the University of Washington.
If that forecast holds true, the catch from Alaska's largest and richest salmon fishery would be almost as poor as the low runs of 1997 and 1998. So few fish returned to spawn those two years that the governor and federal officials doled out aid to help residents in Western Alaska pay heating bills and other expenses.
Prices also have been sagging for Alaska salmon. That can be blamed for the most part on the rise of foreign salmon farming, which has flooded key markets such as Japan with farmed fish.
Alaska's salmon fisheries were worth approximately $260 million at the docks this year. That's the lowest value in 10 years, the state Department of Fish and Game said.
At one time, when Alaska played a larger role in the world salmon market, a weak run at Bristol Bay meant higher prices. But with the powerful surge in fish farming, the loss of wild Alaska fish doesn't mean as much.
Terry Gardiner, president of NorQuest Seafoods, a Seattle-based fish packer, said frozen sockeye salmon is selling for dismal prices in Japan.
The low catch, if it arrives as forecast, will impact an array of people who trek each year to Bristol Bay for a month-long battle with a usually giant charge of reds from 1,900 boat owners to packers to fish haulers to net hangers to fuel vendors, Gardiner said.
"It's punishing," he told the Anchorage Daily News. "Our industry, the whole apparatus, we're way overbuilt for this kind of run."
Dick Hellberg, a fisherman from Warrenton, Ore., called the forecast "pretty sad."
"A lot of guys probably will stay home," Hellberg said.
There is a chance, however, that the University of Washington forecast is wrong.
Forecasters at UW and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game failed to see the crashes of 1997 and 1998, predicting much stronger runs than actually arrived. Fish and Game is at least a week away from releasing its official state Bristol Bay forecast, but Regnart said it would call for only a slightly larger harvest than UW, perhaps a million more reds.