Slow start to Kodiak’s commercial salmon season

Fishing for salmon on the F/V Laguna Star.

Kodiak’s 2020 commercial salmon season is off to a slow start, with many areas still not open to fishing, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Some fishing areas in the southwest corner of the island — Frazer Lake, Upper Station and Ayakulik  — have particularly low numbers of escapement, or fish that are allowed to escape harvest to spawn. 

Because of low escapement, Fish and Game has not made plans to open these areas to fishing until the numbers increase, said James Jackson, a biologist with the department.

“In general, late runs” — salmon that enter the rivers later on in the season — “and low escapement years indicate weak runs, they just aren't doing good right now,” Jackson said. 

As of Friday, nearly 19,000 salmon had been harvested since the opener on June 9, with the largest numbers harvested around Karluk and up the west side of the island. The majority of the fish harvested were sockeye (17,389) and chum (1,318). 

According to a press release, a 33-hour commercial salmon fishing period opened beginning at  9 a.m. Sunday in some areas around Afognak Island, as well as on the west side of Kodiak, parts of the east side and the Alaska Peninsula. 

Jackson said that some fishermen are waiting until salmon numbers increase before they begin to fish. 

Although he did not have the exact number of participating Kodiak commercial salmon fishing permit holders at press time, Jackson said the department does not expect a drop in participants. 

Some fishermen “will wait until some fish are starting to show up to leave the dock because gas costs a lot of money,” Jackson said, adding that other permit holders will work as deckhands on boats or as tenderers in Bristol Bay until pink salmon start arriving around July 6. 

The 10-year average starting in 2009 for permit holders totaled 167 purse seiners and 148 gillnetters, according to Fish and Game data.

Currently, fishing effort is low among sein fishermen and average among gillnet fishermen, Jackson said.

This month’s low numbers are on par with previous years, Jackson said. Despite last year’s rocky opener, 2019 saw a record harvest. Last year, Kodiak saw over 32 million pinks harvested compared to 2 million sockeye, and even fewer coho, chum and chinook. 

However, this year’s harvest is projected to be significantly smaller, averaging 12.2 million pinks and 1.81 million sockeye. 

Data from 2019 shows that sockeye is the most valuable salmon species in Alaska, totaling $421 million in 2019,  followed by pink salmon at $129 million, chum salmon at $64 million, coho at $30 million and chinook at $14 million. 

While it is still too early to gauge overall Alaska salmon prices, low halibut prices and initial low prices for Copper River salmon have indicated a weak seafood market, said Garrett Evridge, a fisheries economist with the McDowell Group.

Although the demand for Copper River salmon dropped because of low harvest numbers, the little demand that did exist initially boosted retail prices, Evridge said, adding that since the fishery opened about a month ago, retail prices have begun to drop. 

“The more uncertainty there is, the more the processors and the buyers are hesitant to be too aggressive with pricing,” Evridge said, adding that the increased costs incurred by processors for COVID-19 mitigation efforts could also play a part in pricing. 

Despite the uncertainty in the market, Evridge highlighted two bright spots: frozen and canned seafood, and the gap in the market for protein created by meat shortages. 

While people were panic buying essential foods and non-perishable items at grocery stores,  sales of frozen and canned seafood skyrocketed, potentially attracting new customers who had never bought canned or frozen Alaska seafood before. In addition, Alaska seafood could fill the gap of meat shortages following the temporary closures of meat  processing plants because of the coronavirus. 

With all the speculation, Evridge offered a caveat: “The world could be significantly different in just a few months,” he said, adding that no one knows what lies ahead. “Even in a good year it's difficult to comment on where prices are headed.”

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