Sockeye salmon forecasts for both the Copper River and the Upper Cook Inlet came in well below historical averages for the upcoming season, a blow to fisheries already reeling from poor runs and pandemic-related losses last season.
For the Copper River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) predicted a total run of nearly 1.3 million sockeye salmon. That number would be 37.4 percent short of the most recent 10-year average of around 2.1 million sockeye and comes on the heels of a 2020 sockeye season where Copper River fishermen scarcely put their nets in the water.
Rich Wheeler, a Copper River fisherman and CEO of the Cordova, Alaska-based processor 60° North Seafoods, told SeafoodSource the declining sockeye numbers are troubling to him.
“As a fisherman, I’m really concerned. I’m concerned about the resource and I’m concerned about getting the opportunity to fish. I’m looking at how I’m going to be able to pay the bills to be able to fish again next year, but I’m always opportunistic,” Wheeler said.
With the exception of Bristol Bay, sockeye runs have been declining statewide across Alaska. Last season, Bristol Bay’s sockeye harvest was a robust 40 million fish, but just 45 million sockeye were caught across all fisheries in the state.
Andy Wink, the executive director for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, told SeafoodSource he subtracted Bristol Bay’s 2020 numbers to uncover a grim statewide panorama.
“Outside of the bay, there were 317 million pounds of salmon caught in all species, and that was the lowest year since 1979,” Wink said.
The 2020 season saw a 60 percent decline in sockeye harvests in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, and Southeast, according to numbers provided by McKinley Research, with Alaska providing 226 million pounds of sockeye to global market on the season, down from 289 million in 2019.
With sockeye waning in many Alaska fisheries, Wheeler said diversification on both the fishing and processing side has become even more important. He said last season his fishing business got a lift from a strong late summer coho run on the Copper River, while his processor stayed on late taking fish from longliners.
“We really shifted gears and did a lot of black cod and halibut. As small as 60° North is, we were the last processor open in Cordova, and one of three buying in the central gulf,” Wheeler said.
However, agility has its limits, Wheeler said, and fluctuations in fish stocks and markets have complicated his preparations for the season.
“As a processor, it’s really hard to plan. We don’t know what the volume will be, what the prices will be. Then you have to hire crew. It’s a lot of overhead and you just have to hope for the best,” Wheeler said.
ADFG also predicted a run of 37,000 king salmon for the Copper River this summer, which is down from the 10-year average of 48,000.
Wheeler did point to the Prince William Sound forecast as a bright spot. ADFG expects more than 19 million pink salmon to run through Prince William Sound in 2021, which would be 27.5 percent above the 10-year average. Over 500,000 chum salmon are also expected in Prince William Sound, which is slightly over average.
Upper Cook Inlet, meanwhile, was expected to continue a string of seasons with lower sockeye than historical averages. ADFG predicted the Upper Cook Inlet will see a total run of 4.37 million sockeye for a harvest of 2.37 million fish. The forecast is in the range of the most recent five-year average of 4.66 million sockeye but falls well below the 20-year average of 5.93 million. Last season, fishermen caught just 700,000 sockeye in the Upper Cook Inlet on a predicted harvest of 1.85 million. The disappointing harvest was further complicated by small fish and low prices, Kenai Peninsula Borough assemblyman Brent Johnson told Alaska Public Media.
“These fishermen were getting hammered in three ways right there. One, they didn’t catch very many of the primary target species, sockeye. Of those sockeye that they did catch, they were smaller than they normally are. And then the price went to pot,” Johnson said.
Upper Cook Inlet’s Kenai Peninsula Borough has requested disaster relief from the 2020 season, joining Cordova – homeport for the Copper River fishery – Chignik, and the Southeast borough of Petersburg in requests for emergency funds.