Smaller commercial salmon harvest forecast for Lower Cook Inlet

Commercial salmon fishermen in Lower Cook Inlet can expect about a quarter of 2015’s harvest in 2016, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s projection.

The Lower Cook Inlet Salmon Fishery Outlook, published Friday, includes both wild runs and returns from the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s hatchery projects in the area. The total commercial common property harvest is expected to be 548,000 fish, 10 percent of which will be hatchery fish, according to the projection.

Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association operates several hatcheries in the area for pink and sockeye salmon. The association expects a return of 300,700 hatchery sockeye and 429,500 hatchery pink salmon, a total value of about $2.7 million, excluding broodstock, according to the outlook.

Of that, $2.2 million worth of returned hatchery salmon will be harvested by the association for cost recovery, with the remainder available as commercial common property fish, according to the outlook.

Although the 2016 returns are lower than the 2015 returns, they are in line with the 5-year averages, according to the release. The Kamishak Bay District and the Outer District, both areas of the purse seine fishery, are expected to have harvestable pink salmon surpluses: 194,000 for the Outer District and 83,000 in the Kamishak Bay District.

The Southern District, the area for set gillnets in Lower Cook Inlet, will open June 2 for a 48-hour period. The pink salmon harvest is estimated at 47,000 fish for the district, according to the outlook.

The 2016 return follows a recent pattern for pink salmon returns, said Glenn Hollowell, the area finfish management biologist in the Homer Fish and Game office. The harvest in 2013 broke a record, and the 2015 harvest of 6.5 million fish broke the record again, he said.

“We are on a cycle of having an odd-year of pink salmon returns,” Hollowell said. “Pink salmon are on a two-year cycle. Other species of salmon come back mixed. We’ve been having really big odd year returns in pink salmon.”

Pink salmon are on a two-year cycle — the 2017 run is expected to be similarly large, while the 2016 run is closer to average, he said. Better survivability for the pink salmon may contribute, he said.

About 2 million of the pink salmon harvested last year were in the Tutka Bay Lagoon Hatchery. The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association originally operated the facility there from 1993–2004, but low fish prices drove it to close. The association reopened it around 2010, and 2011 was the first year it was able to collect enough eggs to get a hatchery program going, said Gary Fandrei, the executive director of Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. 

Most of the cost recovery for Cook Inlet Aquaculture has traditionally come from the sockeye returning to the Trail Lakes Hatchery through Resurrection Bay. However, the runs can be unpredictable, and Fandrei said the association is moving toward diversifying its stock for cost recovery.

“Salmon are notoriously fickle,” Fandrei said. “We’re emphasizing sockeye right now in our cost recovery, but the idea is to switch that over to the pinks.”

Last year, the sockeye returns to Resurrection Bay were less than the association expected but the pink returns to Tutka Bay and Port Graham helped recover some of the costs. 

Both facilities are currently operating below their capacity, and the association is working on improvements to the facilities and growth of broodstock to get them operating to their full capacity, Fandrei said. 

The goal is to get an average yearly return of 3.5 million pink salmon to those systems, which is fairly normal for pink hatchery operations in the state, he said.

“One of the things people tend to miss is that you don’t just turn (a facility) on and get all the eggs you need the very first generation,” Fandrei said. “You have to build your broodstock and operate your facility the first couple of generations of fish.”

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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