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Low Abundance of Fish Harms Norton Sound’s Commercial Fishing Season

Multiple pink salmon swimming underwater
A cluster of pink salmon. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries (2020).

The prospects are dim for this summer’s Norton Sound commercial fishing and crabbing seasons.

While the Norton Sound red king crab season began on June 15th, Norton Sound currently has no buyer for its crab. Due to the lack of a buyer, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game says only one individual has registered to be a catcher/seller. The crab, thus, will be sold locally but no Norton Sound crab will be exported out of the region. 2021’s summer crabbing harvest will be limited. Currently, the guideline harvest level for red king crab is set at 290,000 pounds.

Norton Sound Seafood Products, the longtime buyer for Norton Sound’s crab, will not be buying crab this year. NSEDC, the owner of Norton Sound Seafood Products, believes their decision will be in the interest of the long term health of the crab stock stating:

“We feel that allowing a commercial fishery to occur this season will negatively impact the recovering stock for both subsistence and commercial fishers, the effects of which may persist for years to come.”

– NSEDC

As for salmon, the news worsens. Nome’s Fish and Game Area Manager, Jim Menard calls this year’s chum runs the poorest they’ve seen. He states that runs have dipped to less than 5% of what is a typical chum count at this time in the season.

Menard says this puts commercial chum fishing into one of two positions: either they wait for a late turnaround; a prospect already looking unlikely as chum season grows later, or they can call off the commercial chum season. This would give what fish there are to subsistence fishers.

“If that’s the case it wouldn’t look like we will be commercial fishing on chum salmon. We would let the folks go for subsistence. We gotta have that provided for subsistence.”

– Jim Menard

Menard says that the drastic fall in chum runs can be attributed to a poor spawning season in 2017. Chum salmon runs are mostly comprised of four year old fish. A low spawn count four years ago will largely determine how poor this years’ numbers are.

Beyond that, Menard says the extreme scarcity of chum this year may be related to unknown occurrences in the ocean at the beginning of the salmon’s life span.

“So right now, we don’t see any chum salmon opening. Something happened in the ocean that really knocked them down for this stretch.”

Menard states that these low chum runs have been occurring across the Sound and throughout Western Alaska in general. The universality of low runs this season is one of the reasons why Menard thinks something may have occurred in the ocean to inhibit the salmon from running as they typically do.

Another explanation for the low numbers in chum salmon is that it could be a side effect of the high numbers of pink salmon seen in the past five years. Those fish potentially tore up the chum’s spawning ground. And if that’s the case, this could be good news for the region’s commercial fishers as it could auger a better season for commercial pink fishing in the Norton Sound later this summer.

“Five years running we’ve had incredible pink salmon runs, starting in 2016. And the even numbered year pink runs in Norton Sound are a lot bigger than the odd numbered years. But the last two odd numbered years since ’17 and ’19 have been incredibly strong too.”

– Jim Menard

An upcoming strong run of pinks and silvers could save Norton Sound’s commercial fishing season. Menard, however, states that a more accurate forecast on pink and silver runs will not be available until later in the season.

When the season does pick up, Norton Sound Seafood Products will be buying all varieties of salmon, while Norton Sound’s brand new buyer, Icicle Seafoods, is preparing to buy only pinks.

Image at top: Pink Salmon. Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.

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