Story last updated at 11/20/2013 - 5:14 pm
Editor's note: this is the second part of the Morris Communications series "The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon."
On a bright July day, Auke Bay's Don Statter Harbor was overflowing with commercial fishing vessels. Each slip appeared to be filled, as fishermen from across the state and the Pacific Northwest arrived for a scheduled opening for salmon fishing.
Sig Mathisen, a commercial fisherman of 55 years, was among them. Mathisen has fished the waters of Southeast Alaska since he was 12, when he first stepped onto his father's boat. Based in Petersburg, he fished through the historically tough years of statehood, when he said the salmon returns where dismal. He watched the state take over the management of Alaska fisheries and the subsequent rise in returns.
Mathisen said he thinks Alaska's salmon species - the chum, pink, silver, sockeye and king - have seen strong returns in recent years overall, but he has also seen the returns ebb and flow like the tides of the ocean. Some years are better than others, he said.
This year - which saw a state record of some 270 million salmon harvested -Mathisen said he, "was impressed and proud by the way the salmon return came in.
"The volume was incredible. The numbers we're seeing on the good cycles are good enough to sustain the salmon fishermen."
Not counting the sport fishing industry, commercial fishing is the No. 1 private employer in Alaska, with more than 60,000 people working in all sectors from fishing to processing and support services. According to recent federal data, total fish landings in Alaska for 2012 totaled 5.3 billion pounds worth some $1.7 billion. The preliminary value for Alaska salmon at the docks in 2013 is pegged at $670 million, and that will increase in the next few months as processors make end-of-season price adjustments to fishermen.
Back at the docks, the scene that July morning was quiet, but in a few short hours the men mending nets and tending lines were busily motoring out to the western coast of Admiralty Island, one of many islands that make up the Southeast Alaska Archipelago, to fish for pink and chum salmon.
The smell of diesel filled the air as more than 50 boats could be seen fishing up and down Chatham Strait. Nets were being set as fast as possible, as boats lined up to take their turn.
It's no secret. Salmon fishing in Alaska this season was lucrative for most.
Rob Swanson was born and raised in Petersburg and, like Mathisen, has fished all over the state - from Southeast to Prince William Sound. In all, he's fished Alaska waters for the past 33 years.
"It's been good. It's been better than good," he said of the fishing in recent years.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, pink and chum salmon swam in strong, with preliminary harvest numbers tallying 215.8 million and 18.3 million fish, respectively, for the entire state. Those same preliminary numbers show sockeye salmon harvest at about 29.5 million and coho harvest at 5.2 million fish.
"We're in a period that begin in the late '70s, early '80s, that is higher than any other period," Geron Bruce, assistant director of commercial fisheries for the ADFG, said. "The '70s were a low point of salmon production in Alaska."
Bruce said salmon numbers were not particularly strong around the time of statehood, which began in 1959. He cited 1975 as "possibly the worst year."
"Then it started climbing and we've maintained it at a high level for almost 30 years," he said. "It goes up and down from year to year, but it's at the highest level that we've ever observed in the 100 years of commercial fisheries."
Bruce said hatcheries have certainly helped to bolster those numbers.
But it's not all praise for Alaska's salmon.
Out of the five species that swim Alaska's waters, the mighty chinook, or king, salmon falls to last place with preliminary harvest numbers from Fish and Game coming in at 309,000 fish. That's a far cry from 1994, for instance, when the harvest statewide was at 640,000.
The first major decline in king salmon returns was on the Yukon River in 1998, and returns there have remained persistently low ever since with severe subsistence and commercial fishing restrictions. Over the last several years, king salmon returns have also dropped dramatically across the state from the Kuskokwim to the Kenai rivers, creating user conflicts among those who both live and make a living from Alaska salmon.
Mathisen and Swanson recognize the decline in king numbers. Their concern for that species is present but, as businessmen, they have been forced to evolve and diversify in order to absorb the lost revenue felt from poor returns in any of the state's fisheries.
"We do everything from hand-trolling and seining, to gillnetting in Bristol Bay and longlining at the southern end of Southeast," Swanson said. "It's not 'just in case.' We know we that every year something will under perform."
Phil Mundy, a longtime fish researcher in Alaska, said there are differences in salmon harvest numbers by region - no matter the species - but "overall, chum and pink salmon are doing pretty well."
That follows a trend indicated by ADFG reports, which peg strong catch numbers for chum salmon coming out of Southeast. This year's total rolled in at about 10.5 million fish.
Over the past decade, the trend line for chum harvest in this region has largely remained steady - oscillating between 9.3 million and 11.1 million fish, according to ADFG data. The exception to that trend came in 2005, a year after a record drought in Alaska's rainforest, when the harvest came in at 6.4 million fish.
Pink salmon are also holding up well when compared to other salmon species, Mundy said. Strong preliminary harvest numbers, according to ADFG, have pink salmon totaling roughly 89.5 million fish from the state's Central Region and 89.4 million from Southeast. In all, pink salmon made up 80 percent of all the fish harvested in the state for 2013.
In contrast, king salmon harvest numbers made up less than a tenth of a percent.
Mundy said, by far, the best indicator of fish species performance is the level of harvest - that is the amount available after enough salmon have reached the spawning grounds to ensure sustainable returns in future years.
In Bristol Bay, researchers count sockeye salmon numbers in the rivers and this year they were down.
"This year had the lowest number of returns they've had in a long time," Mundy said.
And the harvest numbers follow suit. According to ADFG harvest records, sockeye numbers in Bristol Bay decreased this year, coming in around 15.7 million fish after a nearly a decade of returns that tallied between 20 million and 26 million. One of the highest years of returns came in 1995, when the harvest numbers reached nearly 45 million, according to ADFG records.
When it comes to coho, or silver, salmon, Bruce said Fish and Game has tallied high levels of harvest in Alaska from 2013. For Southeast, these silver salmon have returned to the region in the highest numbers since 1994, when the harvest totaled more than 9.5 million fish.
This year's preliminary harvest numbers from ADFG for the Panhandle aren't too shabby either, as they've almost doubled the 1.9 million silvers caught in 2012. Historically, this region is the strongest producer of coho salmon in the state, with Prince William Sound and the Kuskokwim areas trailing behind.
Mathisen said the strong overall salmon numbers currently being tallied in state waters do not surprise him.
"I have fished in Southeast since I was 12 years old, and I've seen the whale populations grow, and seen fish increase and decrease, from very low when I was a kid to just amazing," he said.
For Mathisen, it's all part of being a fisherman and he credits the state for good management of the resource.
"The trickle-down effect is felt throughout the economy," he said of a strong run. "You can see it and feel it in the communities and this year is one of those years."
Back on the water, the seiners worked until the final few minutes of the opening. The skiffs sweeping out in wide crescents, the crew stacking net and buoys and dumping salmon after chrome colored salmon into the hold below.
Next week: Examining the historical, social and economic value of the Kenai king salmon.
Abby Lowell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments on this series can also be sent to email@example.com.