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Booming Southeast pink returns fuel Alaska's biggest salmon harvest ever

Pat Forgey
A big pink salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound fueled the biggest havest of Alaska salmon ever. Courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game

JUNEAU -- Booming pink salmon runs made Southeast Alaska the state's top salmon fishery this year, as the state itself set a record for the number of salmon caught, the Department of Fish and Game said Thursday.

In 2013, there were 219 million pink salmon caught across the state, where a total of 272 million salmon were landed. Both numbers were records.

"Our salmon managers across the state have done an excellent job of ensuring sustainability of our salmon stocks while optimizing fishing opportunity," said Jeff Regnant, director of the ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Division, in announcing the year's harvest.

In some areas, however, weak runs of some species forced harvest limitations on other species.

There were no commercial Chinook salmon fisheries in the Arctic, Yukon or Kuskokwim areas, the department said.

Pink salmon were "riding a huge wave of production across multiple fishing areas," the department said.

Even the Alaska Peninsula enjoyed a decent pink salmon harvest for the first time in several years.

The big pink run allowed Southeast to recapture the claim of having the state's most valuable salmon fishery, as traditional champ Bristol Bay fell behind both Southeast and Prince William Sound due to modest harvests of sockeye salmon. Sockeye remained the state's most valuable species, however, worth considerably more per pound than pink salmon, the least valuable species.

Not all the salmon harvest news was upbeat.

The Upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon harvest was just over half the forecast. Management restrictions on the sockeye fishery were required to conserve a tiny Chinook salmon return to the Kenai River.

Fishermen this year were paid an estimated $691 million, which trails only the 1988 harvest, worth $724 million. And when final bonuses and price adjustments are made, 2013 may exceed 1988 on a nominal basis, the department said.

On an inflation-adjusted basis, that 1988 salmon fishery would have been worth about $1.4 billion in 2013 dollars, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics online inflation calculator. That would put 2013 well behind 1988 on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Fish and Game Assistant Director Geron Bruce called 1988 an "outlier" year. The price paid to fishermen that year turned into a frenzy that didn't reflect eventual wholesale or retail prices, and it plunged the following year.

"I think the term 'irrational exuberance' applies to that year," Bruce said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com