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Chum salmon running strong in Kotzebue Sound

Tommy WellsThe Arctic Sounder

Fishermen in the Kotzebue Sound region may well feel like Christmas came in July this summer because the commercial salmon fishery in the area has been producing strong returns.

The Kotzebue Sound fishery opened with several eight-hour windows for harvesting chum salmon. Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game expect more than 250,000 chum to be collected during the harvest, which was energized after Great Pacific Seafoods Inc. notified the state it planned to purchase salmon from Kotzebue Sound this year.

Fishermen in the Kotzebue region aren't complaining. "Compared to last year, we doing really well," said Sally McClellan, a retired school teacher. "It has been a very healthy start to the season."

Through Monday, Fish and Game had allowed four fishing "windows." The latest yielded 4,233 fish — more than 1,000 more than the same period a year ago. Local anglers opened the season on July 10-11 by hauling in approximately 1,500 fish during an eight-hour period.

McClellan said 25 boats have participated in the early portion of the openings, lured by longer fishing periods than the state has allowed in the past few years.

“It makes it easier for the fishermen,” she said. “Before, you only had a few hours so you didn’t have the time to move around. You pretty much had to take what you got in whatever spot you chose. Now fishermen have a little more time to move to another spot if they aren’t catching anything.

“We are glad to see that,” she said.

Currently, fishermen are receiving 32 cents a pound for chum salmon, which are marketed as keta salmon.

That price is 8 cents a pound lower than last year, but area fishermen aren't too disappointed.

“The longer fishing period has allowed us to catch more fish,” said McClellan. “We have a lower price, but we can catch more fish. I don’t think anyone is complaining about that. We’ll take that,” she said.

A year ago, approximately 55 boats participated in the fishery during late July and August. Seth Kantner, a well-known Alaska author who fishes for Maniilaq LLC’s commercial operation, agreed that the salmon runs appeared to be stronger this year.

“From what I have heard, it’s going really well,” said Kantner, a longtime fisherman, who is fishing on a much smaller scale to help develop Maniilaq’s higher-end salmon market.

As part of Maniilaq LLC’s operation, Kantner said he and his crew catches and prepares each salmon independently -- as opposed to bulk fishing. That process, Maniilaq LLC officials feel, eventually will lead to a high-end market and additional revenue for the region.

Currently, Kantner’s fish are bled, put on ice much like troll-caught salmon and shipped to Kodiak for processing before being shipped to Maniilaq customers.

Fish and Game officials said in a release that the chum may be running later than normal this year, and that the late run could harm buyers' ability to handle the volume during peak weeks.

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.