Story last updated at 4/16/2014 - 4:16 pm
Alaska's total salmon catch for 2014 is projected to be down by almost half of last year's record haul. State fishery managers are calling for an all species harvest of just under 133 million salmon, a 47 percent drop from last year's whopping 283 million fish.
A pink catch of 95 million pushed the record last year, and it is pinks that will bring the numbers down this summer. Pink salmon run in on/off year cycles and this year the catch is pegged at about 75 million, a 67 percent decrease from last summer's 226 million humpy haul.
Other projected catches for this year call for a 14 percent increase in sockeyes (to nearly 34 million); 4.4 million coho salmon, and nearly 20 million chums. For Chinook salmon, a catch of 79,000 is projected in areas outside of Southeast and Bristol Bay.
Along with the salmon forecasts, the annual report released last week by the state Commercial Fisheries Division also provides recaps of the 2013 season for every Alaska region. (All values are dock prices and will increase when post-season sales bonuses and other adjustments are made.)
Some highlights: A total of 1,917 permit holders participated in Alaska's salmon fisheries last year, an increase of 1 percent over 2012. The preliminary value of $238 million is the highest since 1985.
The proportional harvest composition by species was <1 percent Chinook, 1 percent sockeye, 3 percent coho, 84 percent pink and 11 percent chum salmon.
Southeast Alaska fishermen again caught the most salmon at 112 million fish, the most since 1962 and 218 percent of the recent 10-year average. The exvessel (dockside) value of $238 million was the highest since 1985.
Prince William Sound's salmon harvest barely missed 100 million fish - all but about 7 million were pink salmon.
At Upper Cook Inlet, the catch of 3.1 million salmon was down 23 percent from the 10 year average, but high sockeye prices pushed the value to $39 million, the eighth highest value since 1960, and the second highest in a decade.
The Bristol Bay total harvest was 16.4 million salmon, valued at $141 million, 26 percent above the 20-year average and seventh over that same period.
At the Kuskokwim region, 469 permit holders went fishing last summer and took home $2.4 million at the docks. The overall chum run at Kotzebue Sound was well above average.
For the sixth year in a row, there was no fishing for king salmon in the main stem of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers. Many of the 467 fishermen had great success targeting chums with dip nets for a dockside value of $3.5 million.
At Norton Sound 124 salmon fishermen brought in the highest chum salmon harvest in over 25 years. For three of the past four years, the value has topped $1 million.
At Kotzebue, 66 permit holders sold 2.5 million pounds of chum salmon, down 20 percent. A 15 percent drop in chum prices to $0.27 per pound likely caused less interest in the fishery. The dockside value of $689,163 was 16 percent above the historical average.
The $23.3 million value of the Chignik salmon fishery was worth $307,076 on average among the 77 permit holders. At the Alaska Peninsula/False Pass, 150 fishermen shared a payday of $33 million.
At Kodiak, 335 (55 percent) of the eligible salmon permits fished last year for a catch that topped 59 million, the highest since 1995. It paid out well above the previous average 10-year value of $28.3 million. Seiners accounted for 94 percent of the total Kodiak harvest with earnings averaging $304,105 per permit.
Fish to Schools
A push by Sitkans is getting more local seafood onto Alaska kids' school lunch trays.
A Fish to Schools Resource Guide created by the Sitka Conservation Society is a sort of "tool kit" that outlines procuring and preparing seafood, legalities, tips and recipes. The idea was spawned two years ago at a Sitka Health Summit, a grassroots effort sponsored by the community's two hospitals, said Tracy Gagnon, community sustainability organizer for the Society and program coordinator.
"The Fish to Schools Program tries to integrate the community into every part of the process," Gagnon said. "It gets our fishermen and processors involved, our schools and children and parents, community members ... I really think that's what makes ours so successful."
To make students more aware of where their food comes, the guide includes a seven-lesson 'Stream to Plate' curriculum.
"It really brings salmon to life in the classroom and teaches students how the fish are connected to their lives, the community, the economy and the environment. That is something unique to our Sitka program," she said, adding that salmon is served once a week at most Sitka schools.
Before this year, more than 23 local fishermen and Sitka processors donated the seafood to the schools - but now they can be paid, thanks to a $3 million funding grant from the state.
"It's called 'Nutritional Alaska Food for Schools,' (NAFS) and it's a fabulous statewide appropriation that reimburses school districts for their Alaska food purchases, including seafood," Gagnon said.
Food for Schools money is in the FY15 state capital budget, and Gagnon hopes it becomes a fixed item.
"We are really hoping to see multi-year funding so schools have the ability to invest in infrastructure development so that they can process raw products," Gagnon said. She added that the US school lunch program has moved away from scratch cooking and most meals are heat and serve, highly processed products.
"We are really limited on how schools can prepare food. Some have convection ovens so you can bake fish, and that's how all of our fish recipes have been so far. But we don't have skillets or frying pans," she explained. "I think that's one of the successes from this program is that we are breaking that habit. We are changing the current system and integrating local seafood that is prepared from scratch. So that is a really cool hurdle we've accomplished."
The Food to Schools program also is a boom to Alaskan growers and fishermen because they are able to have secure in-state markets.
Seafood purchases through NAFS last year totaled $137,176 pounds by 25 Alaska schools or districts, led by Anchorage, Kenai and Kodiak. Sitkans hope their Fish to Schools guide book will motivate others to come aboard.