With fishing winding down in all major districts, a strong turnout of Alaska pink and Bristol Bay sockeye salmon this season has buoyed fishermen in a harvest year that continues to gain ground on the previous two years.
Year-to-date harvest numbers are now up 20 percent over 2020 and up 15 percent over pre-season forecasts, according to McKinley Economist Dan Lesh, citing data reported through Sept. 5.
Pink salmon harvests surged 120 percent above Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) predictions at a little over 149 million fish.
As of Sept. 10, around 62.3 million pink salmon had been harvested in Prince William Sound seine fisheries, marking this year as the third-largest harvest of Prince William Sound pink salmon in the past decade, followed by 2013 and 2015, respectively (pink salmon's high numbers come in two-year cycles).
"Wild stocks are returning stronger than anticipated, given the uncertainty about spawning success from the 2019 parent year that was assumed to be negatively impacted by drought conditions," ADF&G said.
Through Sept. 4, the state's pink salmon harvest was more than 6 million fish, which is the largest harvest for this week of the season in at least 10 years, said Lesh. Nearly half of the late-season pink salmon harvest occurred in the Kodiak area.
Southeast Alaska Seiners Association (SEAS) Executive Director Susan Doherty told IntraFish in July the better fishing conditions were welcome news for the region, which in recent years has been plagued by poor escapements and drought.
Keta, or chum, salmon harvests also shot up significantly through the month of August, with harvest levels now "well above" their low 2020 numbers, according to Lesh.
Bristol Bay boom
Like the pink salmon harvest, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon harvest at over 54 million fish was 116 percent above what ADF&G predicted for this year. That was largely thanks to the Nushagak and Ugashik Districts seeing unprecedented daily harvest rates in July.
"The massive volume of fish that came into the Nushagak over a few day period was really astonishing," Tom Rogotzke, a supplier to Peter Pan Seafoods and operator of a Minnesota-based direct-to-consumer business, said
"I feel really fortunate to have been there for record-breaking day after record-breaking day," Rogotzke told IntraFish.
"I caught myself saying, 'I've never seen anything like this before' multiple times."
While harvests were high, the total weight of the harvest will not compare as favorably to past years if average fish sizes across all fisheries are as small as sockeye in Bristol Bay and pink salmon in Southeast.
Pinks averaged 2.8 pounds, according to ADF&G. The McKinley Research group said the average weight for sockeye was 4.5 pounds, compared with an average of 5 pounds last year.
Alaska scientists that weighed in on the issue attributed it to more competition for food with bigger runs and the fact that most fish that returned this year to Bristol Bay only spent one or two years in the ocean instead of three, according to Alaska Public Media.
Climate change and warming oceans may also be playing a role in the smaller fish size, the news site reported.
Sockeye market regains footing
This year's Bristol Bay salmon season kicked off with Alaska processor Peter Pan releasing early base prices that far exceed last year's prices paid to fishermen.
In turn, US frozen sockeye exports increased substantially over the summer, with export volume and value surpassing July 2020 by 51 percent and 67 percent, respectively, according to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA).
The average price per pound was up 37 cents, the group, which promotes wild salmon harvested in the Bristol Bay region, said earlier this month.
Based on data from state of Alaska sources, it is estimated that the final ex-vessel value of Bristol Bay sockeye for the 2020 season totaled $208 million (€175.9 million), while net processing revenue -- wholesale sockeye sales minus ex-vessel payments to Bristol Bay fishermen -- was $314 million (€265.5 million).
The final ex-vessel value declined 39 percent, but net processing increased 50 percent for the 2020 harvest year, which extends from June 2020 to May 2021.
Comprehensive salmon harvest volumes for the state will not be available until ADF&G's post-season salmon harvest summary is available.