State data shows 2020 Southeast salmon harvest was among worst on record

Fishing boats in a harbor
Boats in Wrangell’s Heritage Harbor.(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

special report released in March paints a stark picture of 2020’s salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska.

“Overall, it was one of the lowest harvests we’d seen, I think since the 70s,” says Lowell Fair, the Southeast regional supervisor for the state Fish and Game department’s commercial fisheries division.

It was already clear from preliminary reports that last year’s salmon season was a rough one. But just how rough?

For sockeye, the harvest was the second-lowest since 1962 — that’s just a couple of years after Fish & Game was formed and started collecting data.

The king harvest was among the bottom five harvests since the early 1960s as well.

Coho and pink harvests came in stronger than kings and sockeye, but were still among the lowest years in recent memory, ranking 48th and 53rd since 1962, respectively.

Fair says Fish & Game doesn’t have an answer for the almost 60% drop in salmon harvest between 2019 and 2020. It could be any number of factors, at any part of a salmon’s life cycle.

“Marine survival [issues] is what our biggest guess would be,” Fair explains, “But that’s always hard to pinpoint, because we just don’t have the funding to do the research to really look at those kinds of studies.”

If there’s a silver lining, it might be the department’s forecast for 2021 pink harvest, which is projected to be average. In its report, Fish & Game doesn’t forecast salmon returns to the region for any species besides pinks.

That’s because pinks are the only species Fish & Game has enough data on to make a forecast.

“There’s just so much uncertainty already in survival, then when you have uncertainty in the data, that makes it just problematic to begin with,” Fair says.

He adds that Fish and Game manages all five species based on what comes back.

“We just don’t have the money to research why that amount came back,” Fair said.

But the numbers Fish and Game does have say pinks should come in a bit better than last year.

“Overall, we’re expecting a better return — better run next year to just Southeast,” Fair explains.

With some digging, putting together forecasts from hatcheries, sport fisheries, and intergovernmental partnerships with Canada, he adds that 2021 might just be better for all five species.

“I mean, it was one of the lowest overall salmon salmon harvests we had seen since I think the early 70s,” Fair said. “So I would hope so. And not only was that the case, but prices were down. And so it was really tough on fishermen.”

Fish and Game hasn’t finalized ex-vessel prices for salmon in Southeast last year. Preliminary reports show about a 30 percent decrease in per-pound price for sockeye, pink, and chum compared to 2019, and a slight rise in price for kings and coho. The combined low catches and low prices led Southeast communities to seek a disaster declaration for the 2020 salmon season.

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