Disappointing salmon harvest winds season down early
With the seasonal peak behind it, Alaska’s commercial fishing industry is expecting one of the worst shortfalls for salmon in recent memory.
As of last Tuesday, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s in-season blue sheet summary estimated just over 102,245,000 salmon had been caught statewide, with less than a quarter of that caught in Southeast. Despite a fair showing for sockeye, the state’s fishermen would be fortunate enough to harvest half the 263,463,000 salmon estimated caught last year.
The news has not been good for the local commercial industry, with a number of fishermen having to travel further afield to catch fish. Processing has also been affected, with Trident Seafoods closing down its Wrangell plant early. It previously had to temporarily suspend operations at its Petersburg plant at the end of June, transferring those workers over to the Wrangell plant. It resumed operations there after more than a month’s hiatus last week, after concluding its activities in Wrangell. Its cannery in Ketchikan also finished its season on Friday.
“We had anticipated a greater return,” explained Trident’s Southeast regional manager, John Webby.
With the crabbing season and salmon harvest about wrapped up, Sea Level Seafoods has also begun downshifting its operations.
“Everybody’s had to throttle back and scale down,” Sea Level general manager Vern Phillips said.
He explained pink salmon have been the biggest letdown of the season, with a shortfall of 55 million likely from an expected 90 million. The numbers caught in Southeast have been particularly grim, with only 15,486,000 caught so far this year; in 2015 the region’s waters produced 34,089,000, which was even then considered a disappointment. Chums, chinook and cohos have also not come in as expected.
“This is probably one of the worst years that I’ve seen, and I’m sure people around the state would agree with me,” Phillips reckoned, at least since 1968. “It’s going to be a very hungry winter.”
With the shortfall, he expected the effects would not just be felt by area fishermen or plant workers, but by the supplementary businesses which contribute to the industry. When fishermen are out of pocket, the oil dock does not sell as much petrol, the grocery stores sell fewer groceries, boat yard contractors will have fewer projects, and so forth.
“It’s just a ripple effect, and it’s going to be statewide,” Phillips said. “Every coastal community is going to feel it.”
In its By The Numbers annual economic report released last fall, Southeast Conference estimates better than 4,300 people are regionally employed in the seafood industry, which includes fishing and processing. Together, the sector brings in around 12 percent of income earnings to communities in Southeast Alaska, at over $259 million in 2014.
Commercial fishing and seafood processing grew from 2013 to 2014 by 406 jobs, and workers in that sector saw a 24-percent increase in wage earnings as well. The wider maritime economy, which takes private and Coast Guard employment into account, saw the addition of 861 jobs between 2010 and 2014. Wages in that sector had that largest increase of any measured, at 29 percent. By comparison, over the five-year period job earnings across all sectors rose from $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion, a 14-percent rise.
Seafood brought in by Wrangell fishermen also benefits the city, with half of the state’s three-percent raw fish tax going back to municipalities. Locally, those funds go toward the Harbor Department, with covering up to a third of its harbor facilities budget and the remainder going into a commercial fishing infrastructural fund, from which money is made available for dockside improvements benefitting the industry. Last year $392,075 came back to the department, and for the coming fiscal year it has expected to receive around $300,000. The final amount though, will largely depend on the season’s catch.
The ripple effect may also impact operations at the Marine Service Center, whose lifts and operations are run by the city but is home to a number of private contractors. Harbormaster Greg Meissner said it was difficult to anticipate how the yard will do this winter based on the success of the fishing season. For example, after last year’s disappointing harvest he found activity at the yard had remained busy.
“It turned out to be one of our biggest years,” said Meissner.
On the Stikine River, one of the few highlights of the season has been the sockeye run, which at 242,000 fish ADFG reports is above its 223,000 forecast and well above the 10-year average. Unfortunately, sockeye do not make up enough of the harvested share for that to make much difference to the shortfall.
“It helped, but it didn’t make up for the shortfall,” Webby commented.
Examining ADFG’s annual commercial harvest and exvessel values reports, the total value of this year’s catch will be among the worst in recent memory. 2015 had already been the lowest since 2006. Since a high point in 2013, the valuation of Alaska’s catch by last year has been in a subsequent decline despite total poundage being on an overall increase over the preceding two years. In particular, this was exacerbated by a fall in the average per-pound price of sockeye and pink salmon between 2013 and 2015, by 56 and 50 percent, respectively.
Falling values for all five species coupled with declining harvest totals for coho, pink and chum have meant the state’s fishermen have been catching more poundage for less return. Comparing 2015 to 2013, a two-percent increase in poundage was met with a 41-percent decrease in estimated value overall, with just over a billion pounds of fish yielding around $414 million.
For the Southeast region, there have been few areas of improved output in recent years. While the number and poundage of big-money salmon like chinook and sockeye last year was greater than 2013, it was still a drop from the year previous, and coupled with reduced value meant an overall loss for fishermen. Though the average per-fish weight had increased for pink, coho and chum, a general decline in both value and poundage made for a shortfall in earnings across the board. The 2015 salmon harvest was estimated at $89 million, down from $147 million the previous year, and far short of 2013’s $219 million earnings.
The region’s biggest declines to be seen were among the pink and coho salmon populations, which were reflected in a drop in catch by Southeast fishermen between 2013 and the present. From a high point of 89,234,000 pinks caught in the former year, only 34,089,000 were caught last year, and even fewer are expected this season. As of Monday, less than half that amount was logged by ADFG’s harvest blue sheet, which is updated twice daily.
In its forecast and projections report put out in March, ADFG has indicated the largest source of uncertainty regarding this year’s pink salmon return may be the anomalously warm sea surface temperatures persisting throughout the Gulf of Alaska since the autumn of 2013. Pink salmon heading to sea in 2014 returned in numbers well below expectation last year, especially in the region’s southern half. The report points out that pinks headed to sea last year and set to return this summer have experienced similarly above-average sea surface temperatures.
“Have no idea where they went or what happened to them,” PFI plant manager Patrick Wilson said of pink salmon this season. “We’re not sure, just hopeful that next year we see a better return.”
Wilson called the season “extremely disappointing,” but the few fish brought in to PFI were bigger than usual. For PFI, processing crews were regularly seeing fish ranging from six and seven pounds up to 12, Wilson said.
“Some of them were bigger than our chums, which is quite unusual,” he said.
Another local processor in Petersburg said the season was “virtually a disaster for everybody.” The source includes everyone from cannery workers to fishermen, and echoes the sentiments of Wilson, looking forward to next year.
“Southeast can’t take too many years like this,” the processor said. “Nobody came close to what their hopes or expectations were.”