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Average season ahead for pink salmon in Norton Sound, but weak forecast for chum

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

It looks like it’s going to be a fairly average year for pink salmon in the Norton Sound region, but a weak year for chum, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim Menard.

Pink salmon runs tend to be better in even-numbered years, and Menard expects that trend to continue, though the numbers likely won’t be as good as they have been in recent even-numbered years.

“We don’t expect the record runs that we saw in ’16, ’18 and ’20 … because the record runs we saw for the odd numbered years in ’17 and ’19 didn’t come back as a record run in 2021. It came back as an average pink salmon run,” Menard said.

2021’s pink salmon catch was the fifth-highest ever, and the highest ever for an odd-numbered year. That was because there was an extra buyer in the region in 2021, Menard explained. That extra buyer, Icicle Seafoods, does not plan to return to the Norton Sound region this year.

Salmon forecasts for the Norton Sound are based on juvenile trawl surveys conducted in past years. By looking at the number of young salmon that spawn in a given year, biologists can judge the size of the run in later years.

Based on that data, last year’s run of chum salmon should’ve been exceptionally strong, but it ended up being just the opposite, Menard said. The 2021 chum catch in Norton Sound totaled 6,410 fish. That’s only about 5% of the 10-year average of 118,336 fish. Menard is expecting more of the same this year.

“The four-year-old run, which came back last year, was not there. I mean, it was very weak. And that means the five-year-old run this year is going to be weak. And we suspect the four-year-olds coming from the 2018 parent year are going to be weak also, based on what we’ve seen,” Menard said.

The forecast for silver salmon, like pinks, is close to normal. That’s much better than last year, when the total silver catch was only 7,189 fish, compared to a 10-year average of 112,578. Menard isn’t as confident in the forecast for silvers, however, because of how weak last year’s silver run was.

“I’d be confident that the chums are going to be poor, I would be confident there. Confident the pinks are going to be well. But I’m not so sure on the silvers. That’s going to be a little fifty-fifty there,” Menard said.

For sockeye salmon, Fish and Game may shut down fishing on the Pilgrim River as early as mid-July in order to meet escapement goals for the season.

“We think the run is going to be similar or dropping from last year, so we would take a closure faster than we did last year. We didn’t make the escapement goal there last year,” Menard said.

Menard doesn’t expect any openings for commercial fishing of chum salmon this year, but there should be plenty of openings for pinks.

Last year’s catch numbers for all salmon varieties follow, along with the 10-year average for comparison:

2021 catch154737,189289,9126,410303,999
10-year average6152,365112,57881,888118,336315,782

Image at top: A cluster of pink salmon. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries (2020).

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