By Heidi Zemach
Go down to the beach in Seward, and look out over scenic Resurrection Bay. These days youre more likely to see rainbows than the splashes of silvers jumping. And you wont see too many fishermen casting for them either– except at the local snag hole. The most action youre likely to see is at the cutting tables when the charter fleet comes in. Whats happening? And can anything be done to help? Those questions were raised at a recent Seward City Council meeting, and the tenor of discussion reflected the same quiet alarm that many residents, tourists, and some charter boat operators have been feeling over the course of a pretty poor summer for fishing.
I dont blame the shore anglers for being mad, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Dan Bosch. The silver salmon fishery in Seward continues to grow, but effort, and the harvest is shifting in time and place. Much of the harvest that used to be late August has shifted to July, and the harvest that used to be from the shore has shifted to boats.
Salmon fishing started out really good, and it looked like a good year. It started early, but then it stared slowing down and they never really came into the bay, said J-Dock Seafoods Operator Blaine Bachman early last week. Charter boat operators had to continue taking their customers outside the bay where the limit is three silvers a person, rather than the six allowed inside Resurrection Bay proper. With greater distances traveled to locate the good fishing grounds, some charter operators could not start running two charters per day, rather than one. And with less fish brought in, there were less processing dollars received, Bachman said.
The early mixed stock fishery started out really good near Aialik Cape in July where salmon gather in large numbers to feed prior to moving out to their streams to spawn all along the North Gulf Coast and Prince William Sound, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Dan Bosch. And the proportion of harvest from boats there continues to increase. Fishermen have been harvesting 100 thousand silvers out of Seward annually in recent years compared to just 70 thousand during the 1990s, he said.
But silver salmon fishing appeared to go downhill by mid to late summer, when they should have come into the bay. They still dont seem to have returned in strong numbers to the bay, or to the beaches.
Fish and Game numbers clearly document the decrease in Seward shore-side fisheries: In 2005, despite a record year with a total catch of over 170 thousand in north gulf coast, the total harvest was about 136 thousand silvers, but the shore fishery catch was only 13 thousand. In 2004, only 4,700 were harvested from the beach. In 2007, only 2200 were, and in 2008, only 1,700. The numbers arent available yet for last year.
One reason for the shoreline decline is more interception from sports fishing boats, and total increased angler effort, Bosch said. The year 1990 saw less than 70,000 angler days of effort out of Seward. These days, theyve been averaging over 100 thousand.
Less understood reasons for lower returns of adult salmon could have something to do with changes in the ocean, in food sources, temperatures, acidification, or in their breeding groundssuch as streamside flooding.
Failing State Hatcheries:
The two aging state hatcheries also are having major troubles with smolt production that wont get fixed for a couple of years. Those hatcheries, one near Fort Richardson, the other near Elmendorf, have been releasing smaller, less hardy Coho smolt into the various systems. Beginning in 2005, after the military bases power plants were decommissioned, the hatcheries lost the warm water (warmed by the plants) that they had used to rear silvers. Prior to 05 they could raise smolt to the proper size for release in a single year. In cold water, it took two years to rear them to releasable sizebut they still were smaller, less hardy and less likely to survive their journey, Bosch said. The state hatcheries also experienced problems with diseases.
Next year, ADF&G will begin putting eggs into a new state hatchery, which is scheduled to be built, and running by 2012. That hatchery will have better, more efficient warm- water technology, and closed water systems that can contain and limit diseases from spreading, Bosch said. The results, he said, should be more fish growth, and a higher output of smolt.
Silver Salmon Derby:
Although 2010 Silver Salmon Derby ticket sales were down 20-percent over last year, the derby went well overall, said Laura Cloward, the Seward Chamber of Commerce executive director. And the largest fish turned in was the biggest one since 2004 at 18.89 lbs. The weather was atrocious, during first four days of the derby however, which had a big impact. But when it improved during the last five days of the derby, more fish were turned in than during the last five days of 2008, Cloward said. Anchorage and Mat-Su schools also started up earlier this summer, so many fewer families came to Seward to fish the derby, hurting participation, she said. What worries Cloward most however, is whats happening with the hatchery programs that help cushion low return years of wild salmon.
When Cloward assumed her position in 2004, the chamber had a contract with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association for production of smolt. With money from the sale of sport- caught fish turned in during the derby, the chamber purchased smolt from CIAA for 10 cents per fish, or 150 thousand smolt per year for $15,000. But when that 10-year contract expired in 05, CIAA began charging market prices for the smolt, which increased to 50 cents per smolt (fish). The price better reflected the true cost of rearing the salmon, which CIAA had been subsidizing. The higher price decreased the amount of fish that the chamber could purchase. Between 100 -200 thousand smolt were released annually from 2000 to 2008, but last year CIAA released just 68 thousand coho smolt.
The big issue for us now is there arent any smolt for us to purchase. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association did not produce any, Cloward said. We feel weve been doing everything we could do. Now we need to figure out what happened, so we know what to do moving forward.
Trail Lake Faces Collapse:
When CIAA made that cooperative agreement in 94, they believed they could harvest and sell the returning adult salmon to compensate the hatchery for the cost of rearing them, explained CIAA executive Director Gary Fandrei. For a decade it worked. But then things changed. There was no longer a market for CIAA silvers, and due to the higher harvest rate by others, the hatchery catcher boats harvested fewer cohos for its cost recovery program. This summer, for example, CIAA had hoped to raise $1.4 million to operate the Trail Lakes Hatchery next year from its cost recovery program for the sockeye salmon project (at Nash Road). But the poor harvest only generated $250,000, Fandrei said.
Another thing happened with CIAA finances. Sen. Ted Stevens earmarks that helped keep the programs from going under stopped coming. So did Chamber funding. The CIAA board finally decided that it could no longer afford to gamble on recouping the money it spent raising fish, when the adult fish returned two years later. So they asked the chamber to pay the rearing cost up front, or make a partial payment, or commit to pay the cost regardless of the actual return. Thats something the chamber did not doso until things change, there will be no smolt produced at the Trail Lakes hatchery for the Resurrection Bay fishery. The CIAA Board will meet Tuesday Sept 7, at its Soldotna office, to discuss its futurewhich includes taking out a loan, or even shutting down the hatchery, Fandrei said.
Meanwhile, Trail Lakes is continuing to raise coho fry to stock Bear Lake, which was part of its contract for its sockeye stocking project. CIAA is down to producing about a third of the total number of fish it has produced for the past 10-15 years. If Trail Lake Hatchery closes, both red and silver salmon stocking projects in Resurrection Bay would end, Faudrei said.