For Southeast pink salmon, it’s back to the even-year blues

Pink salmon spawn in a creek in Petersburg in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Cindi Lagoudakis)

Fishery scientists are forecasting a region-wide catch of around 16 million pink salmon for 2022.

That would be a big drop from this past year, but it’s about double the 2020 harvest from the parent year of those pinks in 2020 and the catch from 2018.

“Although it sounds like a low harvest forecast, it’s actually a large improvement over the last two even years,” said Andy Piston, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s pink and chum salmon project leader for Southeast.

The Southeast harvests in both 2020 and 2018 were around 8 million fish, and among some of the lowest in decades.

Pinks are more difficult to forecast than other salmon, spawning every two years and with only one age group returning. A big piece of the outlook is based on data from trawl surveys, now a joint effort by Fish and Game and NOAA Fisheries. The annual research catches young pink salmon migrating from their freshwater rearing streams to the open ocean. It gives a snapshot of how many young fish have hatched and survived rearing.

Piston said the survey catches were poor this past summer, but there’s reason for some optimism.

“All the concerns people have had starting in late 2013 about the Blob and anomalously warm conditions have largely gone away,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll start seeing some turnaround in some of our marine survival for salmon with conditions being close to normal out in the Gulf.”

Many pointed to warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures as a possible culprit for poor ocean survival over the past few years. The poor catch in 2020 was compounded by low prices during the pandemic, making it worth just over $6 million at the docks that summer. But 2021 saw a stronger than forecast run and a rebound in prices.

Scientists forecasted a region-wide catch of 28 million fish going into this summer. Instead, the catch topped 48.5 million pinks, worth over $48 million at the dock based on an average price of 36 cents a pound. That was the thirteenth-highest catch since statehood.

Piston said the numbers of fish escaping, or making it back to spawning streams, were higher around the region.

“We had very large escapements throughout southern Southeast Alaska this year. And in northern Southeast Alaska, where we had pretty poor escapements in the parent year of 2019, we saw a big improvement and we met our escapement goal in all three sub-regions of Southeast Alaska. And generally in the northern Southeast inside areas we saw pretty decent escapements in most areas this year,” he said. “So that was a really big improvement over what we saw in 2019.”

This year, fishing fleets caught 38.1 million pinks in the southern panhandle and 10.4 million in the northern part of the region. That’s a big improvement for returns in the north, which have been weak in both odd and even years recently.

Pinks are targeted by purse seiners and most are canned or frozen.

KFSK - Petersburg

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