Story last updated at 3:02 p.m. Friday, August 9, 2002

Cook Inlet sockeye season closes up
Sepp Jannotta


THAT'S A WRAP. Today marks the end of the upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon fishery as the driftnet fleet made its final sets of the season that has yielded a better-than-expected catch. Setnetters in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Foreland areas also finished for the season. All told, as of Tuesday afternoon, upper Cook Inlet fishermen pulled 2.7 million sockeyes from their nets, as well as 12,000 kings, 211,000 silvers, 435,000 pinks and 223,000 chums. While the catch numbers were up compared with the two previous seasons, fishermen caught 1.8 million sockeyes last year and 1.3 million in 2000, the price has continued to falter. Fishermen were getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 cents a pound for their fish last week. Just three seasons back the price for upper Cook Inlet sockeyes was $1.30 a pound. The widely publicized erosion of the Alaska salmon market prompted many fishermen in the region to keep their boats out of the water this season. During the peak of the Cook Inlet sockeye run, more than 200 of the 585 permit holders in the area stayed away. That number would have been higher, but when the early season catches looked unexpectedly strong, some fishermen changed their minds and launched their boats later in the game, according to Fish and Game Area Biologist Jeff Fox. In Bristol Bay, where prices barely cleared 40 cents a pound, fishermen stayed away in droves, with 700 of the bay's 1,900 boats opting out of the struggling fishery. Because of the decline in overall effort, those upper Cook Inlet fishermen who did participate this year for the most part fared better than they had in the previous two seasons. Fox said the fleet was in good spirits and generally pleased with its take. But he qualified his remarks. "Pleased is a relative term," he said. "They knew going in that prices were going to be around 50 cents. So better fishing just ameliorated some of their problems."

$100 MILLION IN FEDERAL AID was negotiated for the embattled Alaska commercial fishing industry, according to news releases from Alaska's senators last week. Modeled on similar efforts to help struggling farmers and loggers, the aid package for Alaska fishermen was wrangled out of the negotiations over the Trade Act of 2002, which gave the White House it's coveted fast-track trade authority. "Discussions on the effects of the trade package allowed us to address the problems unique to Alaska's fishing industry," Sen. Frank Murkowski said in a press release. Sen. Ted Stevens said the money should give an economic boost to Alaska fishing communities. "These funds should spur economic development in Alaska's coastal communities and, more importantly, train Alaskans to participate in new endeavors," Stevens said. Murkowski has also suggested that Alaska commercial fishermen use the money to train for new lines of work. For starters, the Economic Development Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, will provide $2 million from the 2002 budget for Alaska's fishing communities. After that, EDA will kick up $15 million per year for 2003-2005 and an additional $15 million per year in 2006 and 2007. According to Stevens and Murkowski, the White House and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao will support an additional $8 million in annual funding for job training for seafood industry workers. Those same workers may be able to seek financial redress with the Trade Adjustment Assistance program offer by the Department of Labor for American workers who are negatively affected by foreign trade.

KENAI PENINSULA FISHERMEN seem generally pleased to see the attention from Washington, said Jack Brown, director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's office for Community and Economic Development. Brown said fishermen had been stopping by his Soldotna office regularly over the past week to discuss the implications of the announced aid package. While the financial assistance is certainly welcome, Brown said, it is too early to tell how much of an impact the money would have locally. Brown added that the fishermen he'd talked to were concerned with the concept that they use the help to train for a change in careers. "A lot of folks are a little resentful of this idea," Brown said. "I think what fishermen would prefer is help within their industry rather than displacing them into other careers. Commercial fishing is more than just an occupation, it gets in your blood." A lot of commercial fishermen have already converted to tourism-related jobs, Brown said, adding that there will likely continue to be an interdependency between the commercial and sportfishing fleets. Brown said the best way to aid fishermen is to help them improve the quality and market recognition of their product.

ESCAPEMENT NUMBERS for the major Kenai Peninsula sockeye streams look to be on target, for the most part. As of Tuesday, there were 850,000 sockeyes in fresh water in the Kenai River, well within Fish and Game's escapement range of 750,000-950,000 fish. Similarly, the Kasilof River had 218,000 sockeyes in fresh water. Fish and Game escapement goals there were set at 150,000-250,000 sockeyes. The one trouble spot in the Cook Inlet drainage was the Susitna River system, where escapement numbers on the Yentna stood at 78,000 sockeyes after Tuesday, still short of the minimum target goal of 90,000 fish. "Still, as far as fish go, there was a reasonably good sockeye fishery in upper Cook Inlet this year," Fox said.

PINK SALMON RUNS in the Kamishak district have been strong enough to allow Fish and Game to remove all the buoys restricting areas of the Bruin Bay subdistrict, and commercial fishermen are able to set gear in the fishery seven days a week, said Area Biologist Lee Hammarstrom. "It's all about pink salmon at this point," he said. "We've got some pretty strong runs going now." The total catch for the Kamishak district was 365,000 pinks through Tuesday, with about 273,000 of that total coming from Bruin Bay. Along the outer Kenai coast, pinks are still holding strong, Hammarstrom said, especially in the Port Dick subdistrict, where fishermen have reported catching 317,000 of the 376,000 reported districtwide. Fishing in Port Dick is on a five-day-per-week schedule, with some closures on the north shore and around the stream mouths. Hammarstrom said most of the fish on the north shore have remained in the salt water, as recent dry weather may be keeping them out of the streams there. The seiners are cleaning up the tail end of sockeye fisheries at Delight and Desire lakes, though the catch has fallen off lately. The total sockeye catch for the East Nuka subdistrict was 18,000 sockeye as of Tuesday, while the pink salmon catch in East Nuka was 59,000. Elsewhere in lower Cook Inlet, cost recovery fishing is under way in Port Graham, as Port Graham Hatchery Corp. has landed 49,000 pinks for cost recovery and brood-stock efforts. Some of the fish are being stored in live net pens while awaiting tenders.

SOUTHEAST FISHERMEN ARE BYPASSING the processors and selling their catch directly to local consumers and retailers, according to a report last week in the Juneau Empire. With dock prices at near-record lows, there are more fishermen selling their troll-caught king salmon on the docks. "The bottom line is pretty much dictating the fishermen's actions these days," said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association. "The more depressed our price at the dock, then the more fishermen we seem to see looking for alternatives." Low prices convinced Juneau-based commercial fishing partners Tara Lee and Charles Mason to go into the retail business. "We just thought, 'Geez, we could make just as much selling it ourselves,'" Tara Lee Mason said. "We thought our fish were worth more than the local processor was paying us." So she and her husband formed Little Fish Company and began selling their product on the docks. One of their first investments was in a live crab tank, so they could sell the locally caught dungeness crab. Locally caught king salmon from Southeast's troll fishery has been selling for $4.99 at certain stores.

THE PRIBILOF ISLANDS become the home to a new sea urchin fishery, according to a report in the Dutch Harbor Fisherman. Residents of St. George Island are hoping to see the introduction of a new green sea urchin fishery in nearby waters. Forrest Bowers, a shellfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said a St. George community development quota group successfully lobbied for a survey of the area. The survey, which was conducted last week, could lead to the establishment of the new fishery in the next couple of weeks, the Fisherman reported. Green sea urchins are harvested by divers and generally are shipped to Asian markets. Despite the demand, fishermen in the Unalaska area haven't attempted to fill the 5,000-pound quota the state established there. Apparently, local processors say the local sea urchins are too small for them to successfully market.