Kotzebue chum fishery is still 'one of the best'
The 2015 commercial chum season in Kotzebue was one of the best. But despite being the third largest harvest in the last 25 years and the 12th largest in the 54-year history of the fishery, it's still living in the shadow of the 2014 season, which was one for the record books.
"We just didn't have the buying like we had last year. Last year was two to three times the factor of this year, probably. I mean, it was incredible last year, once in a generation where your stars align. You had three buyers buying as much as they could, so to see a run like that, that was incredible," said Jim Menard, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Fishermen harvested 306,000 chums at a total ex-vessel value of about $825,000, which pales in comparison to last year's harvest of 600,000 fish at $2.9 million.
Last year's major buyer was Maniilaq Services, which does business as Arctic Circle Wild Salmon, followed by Great Pacific Seafoods and Copper River Seafoods.
Long-time buyer Great Pacific didn't buy this year and Maniilaq dropped to second buyer. Top purchaser Copper River finished its operations on Friday, August 21st. Maniilaq bought for one period on Sunday, August 23rd, and had planned to continue buying through the end of the season, said Menard, but stormy weather made it not as worthwhile so they finished then as well.
Despite the smaller market, it still amounted to the fourth highest value for a harvest in 27 years, without adjusting for inflation, said Menard. But numbers aside, fishermen were still coming down from the high of 2014.
"You know, if there were some newer entrants getting in and seeing dollar signs, it kind of brought them back down to earth," said Menard.
The number of permit holders who fished jumped this year to 103 from 94 last year. It's the first time there were more than a hundred permits fished since 1994.
There are a number of possible factors contributing to the higher participation, including there being only one major buyer this year. Despite the strong run, there was diminished capacity for buying fish as Copper River was the sole purchaser for much of the season. It went so far as to instate 1,500-pound per permit limits on its fishermen and went several days without buying at all. That's why Maniilaq gave the market a much needed final boost when it arrived on scene later in the season.
Despite being at the lower end of the department's forecast range of 300,000 to 500,000 fish, the harvest was still in the top tier compared to years past. Strong runs have marked the last several seasons of the Kotzebue fishery, with ocean conditions favoring the fish, said Menard. Winters have been a bit warmer than usual in recent years, but even during cold winters, Kotzebue's deeper and larger rivers put it ahead of Norton Sound for survival rates.
"We get the best of both worlds, it seems, up in Kotzebue," said Menard. "We always seem to have good spawning success up there and survival rate. Then, if the ocean has good carrying capacity, we get a double bonus, but Kotzebue's always been very good."
That shows in the test fish project on the Kobuk River, which informs in-season management of the commercial fishery. Upon completion of its operations this year, the chum catch index was fourth highest in the project's 23-year history, said Menard.
There's a standardized statewide index for test fish projects which figures out how many fish would be caught if a hundred fathoms of the net were fished for one hour. Typically, testers will fish 50 fathoms of gillnet for about 20 minutes, said Menard. Then, they record how many fish they catch and standardize it. They do the same for the number of drifts.
They fished 208 drifts at the Kobuk River this year, a large increase from last year's 152.
"We just pulled out last year, we were catching so many fish," said Menard.
In the second lowest number of drifts ever done, they were pulling up record numbers of fish in 2014, which made the total index points incredible, said Menard.
This year also ranks among the top quarter of catches. The test fish project is important, said Menard, because although it doesn't provide the total number of fish for the season, it provides a comparative index over time. It also gives real time data to look at during the season since aerial surveys are conducted at the end.
With El Ni?o conditions in the forecast for this winter, predictions for next year's run and harvest are still up in the air, said Menard. But, he hopes the fish will come back strong once again.
"Kotzebue fish are more robust. They're actually more closely related to the Yukon fall chum. Bigger fish, higher oil content for a chum salmon. So, they tend to survive," said Menard.
All in all, this was another very good year for the Kotzebue commercial chum fishery. But it's still unlikely that the fishery will see the kind of success it did in 2014 again anytime soon.