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1991 fishing forecast.

Salmon Bounty: Predictions of Record Salmon Harvest May Mean Too Much of a Good Thing

Too much of a good thing is the potential awaiting fishermen and processors in Alaska Department of Fish and Game projections for the 1991 salmon harvest. The possibility of a statewide run surpassing the 153.7 million salmon taken in the record 1989 harvest was so large even the predictors could not believe it.

'I think that was an overestimate of what really could happen,' says Herman Savikko, fisheries information officer for the agency's Commercial Fisheries Division.

After releasing preliminary projections in late December, the department suspended its announcements and recomputed its figures. Original projections may have been based entirely on best-case scenarios. Even without final figures, fishermen and processors were preparing potentially conflicting responses to what could range from an inconvenience to a calamity of wealth.

Pink salmon, humpies, were at the core of the conflict. Fish and Game projected a run of nearly 100 million pinks statewide. After allowing for escapement - fish protected from harvest and allowed to reach their home *streams and spawn for future production Projections Up, Halibut Down, Herring Mixed

The booming groundfish fishery in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska will continue to boom away in 1991, according to projections and catch limits for the year. The outlook for Alaska's other major non-salmon finfish heries, herring and halibut, is not as bright.@, HALIBUT Declining prospects is the expectation for the big flatfish this year, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. At this point we're looking at primarily a natural decline" says Steve Hoyt, assistant director of the commission.

The staff recommendation approved at a commission meeting in late January was a coastwide harvest of 5.35 million tons, a drop of more than 3 million tons from the 1990 catch of 58.62 million tons. The catch limit is set by estimating the size of the adult halibut population (over 32 inches) and calculating an exploitation rate - a percentage considered safe to harvest while ensuring continuation of the species. The 1991 exploitation rate for halibut is 35 percent, according to Hoyt.

Although the drop in the biomass is not 67.3 million pinks could be available for harvest.

Nearly half of those, 32 million salmon counting natural and hatchery production, would return to Prince William Sound. The prospect caused concern among processors, fishermen and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. (PWSAC, pronounced "pizwac").

Pinks are used primarily for canning. With some processors still storing warehouses full of canned pink salmon from the 1990 season, word was spreading through the sound that 1991 catch purchases would be limited and prices low. My understanding is we've got a high inventory of canned pinks. Somebody told me we've got enough canned pinks to last us until 1992 if we never caught another fish in 1991,' says Rick Lauber, director of the Juneau office of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

Heather McCarty, spokeswoman for the PWSAC hatchery operator, says, 'Our fear is based on some of our talks with some of the biggest processors that process every year. They weren't anticipating purchasing any PWSAC fish in 1991. Having been informed by them that they don't intend to buy any fish from PWSAC, we got a little bit nervous.'

On a $10 million budget, the aquaculture corporation now operates four hatcheries in the sound, including the state-owned Gulkana Hatchery it added last summer. This July it is scheduled to take over the state's Main Bay Hatchery as the ADF&G Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement and Development Division undergoes a forced divestiture of its hatcheries. The division's downsizing is a result of budget cuts by the Alaska Legislature.

Hatcheries throughout the state operate on revenue gained through cost recovery' - fish reserved specifically for harvest and sale by hatchery boats. According to McCarty, 80 to 85 percent of PSWAC's income is derived from cost recovery. The prospect of substantially reduced cost-recovery sales could spell disaster for the organization.

In response, PWSAC wrote to Gov. Walter Hickel in January asking him to initiate the process that would allow foreign processors to operate in Alaskan waters. Defined in the eral Magnuson Act and Alaska stat ute, the procedure, in essence, is an investigation to determine whether U.S. canners have the capacity to handle the expected catch. If they do not, the governor may issue a permit to foreign processors.

That prospect, accompanied by the possibility of higher prices for fish, encouraged fishermen, but upset processors. Says Lauber, "I think it stinks.' Aside from the competition, he notes that the product hitting grocery store shelves would not be particularly attractive after having been frozen in Alaska, shipped to Asian canneries and thawed, possibly weeks later, for processing.

By mid-January the investigation had not been formally launched, but Clem Tillion, Hickel's special assistant for fisheries issues, had been assigned to research the problem. Although Tillion has said he will do all he can to avoid bringing foreign processors in, he adds, "I won't say it's not a valid concern. I can't let the biggest aquaculture operation in the state fall flat on its face."

While the projections continue to be reviewed, the outlook for this summer predicts Alaska's total salmon harvest in 1991 could reach an all-time h. The record 1989 harvest of 153.7 million salmon taken was almost matched last year, when the total catch reached 152.7 million salmon.

According to Fish and Game's forecast, the state pink catch could top the 1989 record for the species by more than 7 million fish. That expectation is based on the 1989 run from which this season's fish were spawned; pinks mature at two years of age. The fish also appear to have had "good environmental conditions," notes Savikko.

Excluding consideration of fish harvests controlled by the U.S./ Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty, Fish and Game expects increased salmon harvests in most regions of the state. SOUTHEAST. With the addition last year of 39,000 king salmon to the Alaskan catch limit allowed by that treaty, the current harvest total of 302,000 chinook for all gear groups in Southeast is not expected to change.

The projected pink run in the Panhandle is 67.3 million fish; the statewide return of pinks, 98.1 million fish. As of mid-January, Southeast coho, chum and sockeye projections were not available, and escapement predictions were avalilable only for Panhandle pinks. That escapement is expected to be approximately 30.75 million fish.

The escapement goals presented this year are higher than last year because we have changed from reporting an index goal to attempting to estimate true escapement," Savikko explains. In past years the escapement index was 2.5. To compare this year's escapement to the past, 30.75 million would be divided by 2.5, for an estimate of 12.3 million pinks. PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND. Tremendous pink production" is also projected in the Sound as the first smolt reaching maturity since the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident will have come to the end of their life cycles.

Even if the run is as large as predicted, "it's way too early to say" the oil spill had no impact on production, Savikko says. "Last year's harvest came from the largest pink salmon release in history for the area. They released these fish under optimum conditions (at the peak of the plankton bloom)."

A total return of 44.32 million pinks is forecast for Prince William Sound, 100,000 more than the record 44.2 million return last year, Savikko reports. From the total run, a common-property fishery of 32.22 million pinks is projected, plus 1.35 million pinks for natural system escapement, 1.14 million for brood stock in state and private non-profit hatcheries, and 9.61 million for hatchery cost recovery harvests.

The chum salmon harvest in the sound is expected to double from the 967,000 taken in 1990 to 1.96 million this year. The predicted sockeye run in the sound itself is 86,500 fish, plus 863,300 in the Copper River run, for a total more than 40,000 greater than the 1990 run of 912,000 sockeye.

With a 1991 forecast of 524,000 coho, or silvers, little change is expected from last year's run in Prince William Sound. That figure includes 143,000 coho in Prince William Sound, of which 136,000 are expected to have come from hatcheries and 412,000 to have returned to the Copper River. UPPER COOK INLET. Fewer sockeye than last year are expected in Upper Cook Inlet. Fishermen took 3.6 million red salmon in 1990, and Fish and Game estimates they'll haul in 3.2 million this year.

Despite the anticipated drop, Savikko points out the number remains well above long-term average harvests. Cook Inlet, in the last five years, has been enjoying very good catches. They're just starting to drop down to average, and people will say they're crashing,' he says. The 10year average, prior to these really significant catches we've had in the last four years, was 2.5 million. It has to boil down to survival. There's not a lot of enhancement programs in Cook Inlet.' LOWER COOK INLET. Despite the apparently small effect of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, it was blamed for last year's miserable return of 382,000 pink salmon in Lower Cook Inlet. The harvest of 600,000 salmon, including all species, was the lowest commercial catch since 1976. The future is looking brighter, with a projection of 2.1 million humpies this season. KODIAK. A tremendous" pink harvest is expected near Kodiak, while the sockeye run likely will fall. Savikko reports, We're looking at a projected harvest in 1991 of 20.5 million pinks and 2.96 million sockeye." Last year the take was 5.2 million sockeye and just under 6 million pinks. BRISTOL BAY. A major drop in the Bristol Bay sockeye run is predicted. After an excellent harvest of 33.2 million sockeye last year, 21.2 million is the Fish and Game preliminary estimate for 1991.

But along the Alaska Peninsula, another good sockeye season is expected - a harvest of about 2.4 million fish from the southern peninsula fishery, compared with 2.37 million last year. The chum salmon harvest along the southern peninsula should match last year's take of 1.2 million dogs, while the pink salmon harvest is expected to increase slightly, from 2.8 million taken in 1990 to 2.9 million this year.

Figures were not yet available on the Yukon-Kuskokwim harvest.

The possibility of record harvests this year doesn't necessarily mean record profits. Savikko points out, "Inventory is going to be a big part of it. So is the dollar-yen relationship." With most of the state's sockeye catch going to Japan, that relationship is particularly important.

Other Catches: Groundfish Projections Up, Halibut Down, Herring Mixed

The booming groundfish fishery in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska will continue to boom away in 1991, according to projections and catch limits for the year. The outlook for Alaska's other major non-salmon finfins fisheries, herring and halibut, is not as bright. HALIBUT. Declining prospects is the expectation for the big flatfish this year, according tot he International Pacific Halibut Commission. "At this point we're looking at primarily a natural decline," says Steve Hoyt, assistant director of the commission.

The staff recommendation approved at a commission meeting in late January was a coastwide harvest of 55.35 million tons, a drop of more than 3 million tons from the 1990 catch of 58.62 million tons. The catch limit is set by estimating the size of the adult halibut population (over 32 inches) and calculating an exploitation rate-a percentage considered safe to harvest while ensuring continuation of the species. The 1991 exploitation rate for halibut is 35 percent, according to Hoyt.

Although the drop in the biomass is not believed to be the result of unusual factors, no one claims certainty. Earliest halibut population estimates date to the 1930s, but data more than 50 years old "isn't that reliable,' Hoyt explains. Indications that the size of the North Pacific halibut population rises and falls in 10-year cycles are not entirely trusted. Further, man-made events, including overharvest, pollution, and increased harvesting efficiency, combine with natural factors to skew the recently recorded history and to make accurate predictions even more difficult.

If what appears to be the current cycle proves correct, it is about halfway through its decline. Hoyt says stocks apparently peaked in 1986 and have been falling since. The halibut commission's 1991 staff report notes, Assessment studies indicate that halibut stocks in most areas continued to decline in 1990, and that the decline is likely to continue over the next several years as a result of fewer young halibut."

In the previous cycle identified, the late 1970s catch dropped to 22 million pounds. Hoyt notes that researchers don't expect stocks to fall so drastically. Even with the projected declines, some areas will receive at least slightly higher catch limits as a result of reapportionments. GROUNDFISH. Groundfish, or bottomfish, include pollock, cod, sablefish, rockfish and flounder. From 1990 to 1991, the total allowable catch established for groundfish from the Bering Sea remained constant and from the Gulf of Alaska increased by 34,000 metric tons. The catch adopted at the December meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is 2.3 million metric tons. (All figures in this article are in metric, or short, tons.)

When determining harvests from groundfish stocks, regulators and biologists must consider not only the health of those species, but also catches in unregulated areas, such as the international waters of the Bering Sea's Donut Hole'; effects on habitats and migrations of other species; the food requirements of sea animals such as sea lions; and the damage from incidental catches of fish other than the targeted species, particularly halibut.

For example, Dale Evans, chief of fisheries management for the Alaska region of National Marine Fisheries Service, notes, "In some parts of the Bering Sea, red king crab is really constraining the fishery. If it doesn't constrain total harvest, it constrains where and when the catch can be taken.' HERRING. Mixed prospects await Alaska herring fishermen in the 1991 season, according to projections from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Increased catches are expected for Togiak and Prince William Sound, two of the three largest fisheries, but Sitka - the third largest and most of the smaller fisheries likely will have smaller harvests.

We figure that in 1990 the actual sac roe harvest was 37,849 short tons. For 1991 we're projecting a harvest of 36,192," says Herman Savikko, fisheries information officer for the agency.

The slightly decreased catch may be a sign of things to come, he adds. 'In some cases stocks are depressed and the trend is declining. Some of our herring fisheries around the state are not in particularly healthy condition,' Savikko says.

The total projected catch for all gear groups in Bristol Bay is 10,954 tons, down from 14,627 tons last season. Of that sum, the projected purse seine catch is 6,594 tons, down from 9,243 tons last year, and the gillnetters' catch is expected to be 2,198 tons, down from 3,064 tons in 1990. The limited-entry spawn-on-kelp fishery should harvest 175 tons this year, compared with 208 tons last year.

Savikko explains that the Bristol Bay herring catch generally continues to consist of a single age class of increasingly elderly fish. The fishery developed around it. We haven't seen significant numbers of younger fish moving in," he says.

At the other end of the state near Ketchikan, the Kah Shakes herring fishery can expect a projected catch of 679 tons for the gillnetters. No fishery was held in 1990, and the 1989 catch was 592 tons. Savikko notes that despite the increased tonnage opened to the nets, the condition of the stock remains depressed, but stabilized.

The troubled Sitka sac roe seine fishery faces another declining year. Although traditional harvests have been in the 10,000-ton range, the 1991 catch is projected at 3,200 tons, down from last year's 3,804-ton take.

The decline in stock levels is reflected in the decrease in the exploitation rate as well as in actual tonnage that will be taken. Savikko says healthy stocks can be harvested at an exploitation rate of up to 20 percent. 'In the case of Sitka we're only going to have an exploitation rate of 14 percent,' he notes.

Off Admiralty Island the news is worse. There will be no Seymour Canal herring fishery this year. We just didn't see significant spawn or levels that indicate this would be a healthy fishery. They just can't take any commercial pressure beside environmental pressure,' Savikko says. Last year's catch was 361 tons.

On a positive note, the relatively new pound fishery will open again in Hoonah Sound with an allocation o 12 tons of spawn on kelp, the same as last year. In a pound fishery, herring are seined in floating net pens; they spawn on kelp within the nets; and then they are released.

In Prince William Sound all the herring fisheries will be larger than last year if Fish and Game indicators are correct. The seine fleet is projected to get an almost one-third increase, with the harvest forecast at 11,300 tons, compared with last year's 8,302-ton take. The gillnet harvest is expected to be 660 tons, up from 505 tons last year.

The sound's pound fishery, the oldest such harvest in the state, will more than double, for a projected take of 221 tons up from 101 tons last year. Similarly the wild kelp fishery is expected to yield 195 tons. Last year's harvest was 119 tons.

Despite the heavy coating of oil that covered some of the major spawning areas in Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez grounding, the region is theoretically' in the healthiest condition of Alaska's three largest herring fisheries, owing to the fairly stable' distribution of age classes supporting the fishery, Savikko explains.

He notes that catch projections in the Lower Cook Inlet fishery reflect the uncertain health of stock levels there. The 1990 fishery in the Homer area, the only fishery conducted among three possible in the Kamishak District, brought in 2,264 tons. This year the catch is expected to be 1,553 tons.

Similarly, the southern district is showing moderate and declining stock levels. No herring fishery opened there last year, but Fish and Game expects a 200-ton harvest this year, which reflects an exploitation rate of just 3 percent.

Upper Cook Inlet looks better, but not much, Savikko says. Last year's sac roe harvest was 72 tons. This year's take is projected at 100 tons.

The Kodiak herring fishery is unique in both its process and its stock stability. The fishery opens, by regulation, on a specified date, with harvesting taking place every other 24 hours until the catch limit is reached, Savikko explains. The annual catch averages 2,500 tons, and that is this year's projection. Last year 2,347 tons were hauled in.

Indications from western region fisheries are not much different from those in the rest of Alaska's waters. The Chignik sac roe fishery did not open last year, but a 65-ton harvest is projected this year, virtually the same as 1989's 64.4-ton take.

Both of the Alaska Peninsula sac roe fisheries are projected to have moderately increased harvests. The Port Moller catch should be 300 tons, up from 273 tons last year. The south peninsula stock, which Savikko describes as fairly stable,' is forecast to have a 450-ton harvest, up from 312 tons last year.

Declining harvests are the trend in the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim fisheries, Savikko says. The Security Cove harvest is anticipated to be 225 tons this year, down from 234 tons in 1990. Good News Bay is looking at a major decrease, to 220 tons from last year's 455-ton harvest.

The Cape Avinof harvest was 50 tons in 1990 and could reach 260 tons this year. That, however, may be a reflection of business practices rather than biological condition.

The fish stock 'is declining," Savikko says, but also throughout the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim regions, a shortage of buyers sending tenders to meet catcher boats often limits harvests. 'It could well be that the 50 tons (in the Cape Avinof harvest) was not necessarily the quota but was all they could catch and sell," Savikko suggests.

The same situation held for the Port Clarence and Kotzebue fisheries in 1990: No buyers meant no commercial harvest. The fishery was last operated in 1988, when eight participating fishermen harvested 80 tons.

This year we're projecting they can harvest 165 tons," Savikko says. If no buyers are ready, the fishery will be closed with an emergency order.

Although the Norton Sound fishery is also decreasing, its projected harvest of 5,075 tons, down from last year's 6,234 tons, should attract buyers.
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Title Annotation:forecast for fishing industry in Alaska
Author:Tkacz, Bob
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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