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Norton Sound Commercial Fishing Season At Risk As ‘Very Poor’ Chum Run Continues

"Humpys" like these were seen in record numbers in 2016 in the Shaktoolik and Unalakleet rivers.

So far in the summer commercial salmon season, the chum harvest in the Norton Sound region has been well below average. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is hoping more fish will show up, or else they’ll have to stop commercial fishing for chum salmon.

“Basically, my forecast this year…I fell flat on my face.”

– Jim Menard

Jim Menard is ADF&G’s area manager for commercial fisheries in Norton Sound. Based on Fish & Game’s pre-season projections released in May, the department, and Menard, expected a chum harvest ranging between 180,000 and 230,000 fish this summer. But as Menard pointed out, that’s not the expectation anymore.

“The last three years, the harvests have been the three best in over thirty years and things were looking good based on our escapements. Then suddenly the numbers [of chum] started coming in which were very poor. We’ve kind of seen that in Western Alaska, from Bristol Bay, Nushagak, Kuskokwim, Yukon, so we’ve seen that all the way up [the coast].”

According to Menard, within the last decade of commercial fishing in the Nome area, there have only been two years when the commercial fleet didn’t harvest more than 100,000 chum salmon. But this year, Menard says they’d be lucky to get 25,000 fish.

“Right now we’re usually at the midpoint down in Elim and the escapement goal there is 9,100 and we’ve got about 1,500 [chum] past the tower. So, unless we get a surge, we are not going to be doing any more commercial fishing there. In Nome, the Eldorado River is normally at the quarter point and we’re just under 600 chums there.”

Fish & Game’s escapement goals are 9,100 – 32,600 chums at Kwiniuk River, near Elim, and 4,400 – 14,200 chums at Eldorado River, near Nome. Here are the department’s latest escapement counts from July 8th:
North River: 9 kings, 15 chums, 10,200 pinks
Kwiniuk River: 93 kings, 1,515 chums, 87,000 pinks
Fish River: 330 chums, 318 pinks, 12 kings, 12 sockeyes. No counts for over a week because of high water. Solomon River: 5 chums, 18 pinks
Bonanza River: 4 chums, 2 pinks
Eldorado River: 3 kings, 587 chums, 322 pinks
Nome River: 18 chums, 27,000 pinks
Snake River: 8 pinks
Pilgrim River: 2 kings, 42 chums, 20 pinks, 355 sockeyes

There will be a 24-hour commercial fishing period in Golovin, Shaktoolik, and Unalakleet starting tonight at 6pm, but Menard describes this as more of a test. If the chum numbers continue to be below average, then Fish & Game will stop commercial fishing in that area for the rest of the season.

“The last several years, starting July 1st, we’re fishing two 48-hour commercial fishing periods a week. [This year] We fished one 24-hour last week, and we’ll try another one 24-hr this week. But if the numbers aren’t there, we don’t plan on fishing for chum salmon again. We might see if the buyer is interested in fishing on pink salmon, that would be a smaller mesh net.”

Currently there are no more commercial fishing openings expected for the Nome Subdistrict, unless ADF&G sees a late chum run, or the local buyer is interested in purchasing pink salmon. On a happier note, while the pink run has barely started in the Norton Sound, according to Menard this year looks like it could bring in 500,000 or even one-million “humpys.”

Image at top: “Humpys” like these were seen in record numbers in 2016 in the Shaktoolik and Unalakleet rivers. Photo from Mitch Borden, KNOM (2016).

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