Hatchery chums are returning strong in Southeast Alaska

Three caught chum salmon
Troll caught chum salmon (Matt Lichtenstein)

While chum salmon runs in the western part of the state are crashing, hatchery chum salmon returns in Southeast are strong. The runs this year are promising to either meet or exceed expected numbers.

Southeast’s main hatchery operators are private non-profits that rear and release salmon to supplement commercial fisheries. Hatchery chums in the region are genetically indigenous fish but they’re raised in captivity and the fry are released into the ocean by the tens of millions. A small percent return three to five years later, nearly all of them caught by seiners, gillnetters, and trollers.

Hatchery chums are worth millions of dollars every year. The top season was in 2012, when they were valued at nearly $63 million.

Last year’s haul was worth about $25 million. This year will probably be better.

“This has been a great chum return and it’s still ongoing,” said Susan Doherty, who runs Ketchikan-based Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.

Every year, SSRAA releases millions of chum fry at sites throughout the southern half of the region. Doherty says they’ve had good returns since the beginning of the season and they’ve been on time. All but one of the sites are coming in over their forecast numbers.

“It’s a very strong run,” Doherty said. “We’re very pleased after the last couple of years, where that has not been the case.”

She says in recent years, SSRAA had to take out additional loans because there weren’t enough fish to cover their operating costs. She says this year, that shouldn’t be a problem.

“This is more like days of old,” she said.

Further north, the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association operates hatcheries in the central part of the region. There, the chum run showed up late.

“It was the latest, slowest start ever, for all of our sites,” said Scott Wagner, NSRAA’s general manager.

Although the run was late, it’s turning out to be a good one.

“I think we might actually hit forecast,” Wagner said. “But that’s saying something; we haven’t hit forecast in three or four years.”

A sign of success is the Hidden Falls hatchery on Baranof Island. It opened for seine fishing this season after having been closed the last few years.

Like NSRAA, another northern hatcheries operator is also seeing a late return of chums.

“We were very nervous in early July,” said Katie Harms, the executive director of Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc. DIPAC releases chum fry every year in the Juneau and Haines area and sees an average return of around three million fish, which are mostly caught by gillnetters.

Harms says this year’s return was late but it’s turning out substantially better than the last two years. 2021 saw a return of just 1.4 million and 2020’s return was less than a million.

“Any movement in the right direction, out of the hole that we were seeing in 2020 and 2021 is a good sign,” Harms said. “It’s nice to see fish around so I think that everybody’s pretty happy.”

There have been many guesses as to why the hatchery chum returns the last few years were down — everything from hot, dry weather to residuals of the warm-water blob in the Gulf of Alaska in 2015-16. However, like indigenous runs, hatchery salmon cannot be tracked in the ocean so there is always lot of mystery surrounding them.

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