Seawatch: Salmon harvest project to be low — if there’s a season

The 2020 salmon harvest for Alaska is expected to be down compared to last season, mostly due to a lower forecast for pink salmon, but a loss is expected in all species except coho.

That is assuming there is a season at all in some areas.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expecting a commercial harvest of about 133 million salmon of all species, including 320,000 king salmon, 48.1 million sockeye, 4.2 million coho, 60.6 million pinks and 19.5 million chums.

That harvest would be 68 million fewer pink salmon, 7.4 million fewer sockeye, 300,000 more coho and 100,000 fewer chums compared to 2019.

While the forecast for pink salmon is down from last year, it is an “even year” run, which is expected to be smaller than “odd year” runs because pink salmon have a population surge every other year, and this year’s forecast is expected to be nearly double that of the last even year in 2018.

Meanwhile, processors, fishermen and workers are trying to figure out what exactly salmon season is going to look like amid the global pandemic of COVID-19.

Leaders in coastal towns are struggling to coordinate plans to either safely bring in fishermen and workers, hire locally or shut down fisheries entirely.

Commercial fishing is one industry that Gov. Mike Dunleavy has declared essential and is part of Alaska’s Essential Services and Critical Infrastructure. However, there is pushback against allowing the influx of thousands of workers to small isolated communities with little health care available, and pushback against that pushback.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in an interview with the Alaska Journal of Commerce that he is certainly aware of the issues that could arise from holding spring and summer salmon fisheries that start next month as everyone also attempts to limit the spread of the disease, but he stressed state officials are drafting plans to provide extra protection to local residents and fisheries workers.

He also noted that salmon is just one sector of the state’s diverse and year-round fishing industry.

“I think people are wondering whether we’re going to have fisheries; I think they forget that we actually have a lot of fisheries in the water right now and we’re geared up to manage those,” Vincent-Lang said.

In addition to numerous federally managed fisheries, commercial boats are currently targeting crab, halibut, rockfish, pollock, Pacific cod and other species in state waters.

Those ongoing fisheries “have been operating fairly smoothly,” he said, and ADF&G managers are learning a lot about the daily operations of a fishery in the era of social distancing and travel restrictions that can be applied to the upcoming salmon seasons.

In Cordova, home to the state’s first large-scale salmon fishery each year in mid-May at the mouth of the nearby Copper River, residents have started a “KEEP CORDOVA SAFE” website, containing numerous open letters to local and state officials demanding further travel restrictions for fisheries workers and suggesting only local fishermen be allowed to fish, among other measures.

Meanwhile, Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby and Curyung Tribe First Chief Thomas Tilden urged Dunleavy to consider closing the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery in a letter dated April 6, citing concerns about the region’s limited capacity to provide health care and a possible need to make the decision early to allow impacted fishermen and processors to apply for federal aid. The Bristol Bay Working Group, formed to help guide the process, sent a letter to Dunleavy calling on him to close the fishery if certain protocols cannot be met.

The leaders of 11 Bristol Bay processing companies followed up with a letter outlining their strategies for safe operations this summer in what has been a $300 million fishery in recent years.

That letter included plans to conduct in-person medical screening including questions and temperature check at Seattle and Anchorage airports, operating a closed campus with no one allowed to leave or enter the processing facility once there, enforcing the 14-day quarantine and many on-site safety measures.

One demand from the working group is incoming workers getting a negative test for COVID-19 before boarding a plane, while some say that kind of testing has not been widely available as yet.

Cristy Fry can be reached at