Despite the poor salmon forecast for 2017, winter trolling has meant another payday for many of these trollers in Sitka’s ANB Harbor. Through April 10, trollers have landed 20,000 winter kings, about half of them in Sitka. (KCAW file photo)

King salmon fishermen in Southeast Alaska will see a significant reduction in their harvest this season.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced on Monday (4-10-17), that trollers will be allowed over 100,000 fewer fish than last year, under management guidelines negotiated under the Pacific Salmon Commission.

And it’s unlikely that trollers will be able to make up the difference in their fallback species — chum — if forecasts prove correct.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey attended the spring troll meeting in Sitka and filed this report.

Downloadable audio.

Weak wild returns, plus treaty politics combined to reduce the projected troll harvest of chinook salmon in 2017.(Flickr photo/Kegger)

Trollers were clearly discouraged by the announcement, but it was not unexpected. King salmon, or chinook, are not returning to their home rivers in Southeast to spawn in sufficient numbers. Four of the region’s six major chinook-producing rivers are forecast to fall at-or-below escapement goals this summer, continuing a downward trend that began in 2012.

King salmon trolling is divided into three seasons: spring, summer, and winter. With only 155,000 kings to catch over the entire year, Southeast trollers could have an especially short summer season.

Grant Hagerman is the regional troll fish biologist for ADF&G.

“Well, a lot of it depends on where we’re at after winter and spring closes, if we carry tens of thousands of extra fish in, but yeah, we could be looking at somewhere less than five days.”

Summer king trolling opens on July 1, and sees around 900 boats on the water. Last year, summer kings averaged about 12 pounds dressed, and brought in an average of $5.10 per pound.

Managers try to limit trollers to about 70-percent of the summer harvest in that first opener. Sitka-based troller Eric Jordan has co-authored a proposal to the Alaska Board of Fisheries to further restrict the July king harvest to 60-percent. Jordan’s hope is to see better value on the kings caught later in the summer.

“The fish are worth more, they’re bigger, and the catch rates are less in August, so please, do not end up catching the whole quota in the first few days of July.”

Winter king trollers get the best value for their harvest. As of April 10, trollers had landed almost 20,000 kings — about half of them in Sitka. The price for winter kings hit $10 per pound in January, and has remained high. Managers expect the strong harvest to continue through the end of April, when trollers will have landed about 45,000 chinook.

Some of this year’s reduction in Alaska’s share of king salmon has less to do with poor escapement, and more to do with the politics of the management arrangement with Canada, or the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Although Alaska’s wild stocks are in a down cycle, hatchery production coastwide is sufficient to support a larger harvest. But because some chinook runs outside of Alaska are in trouble, treaty commissioners ratchet down the chinook Abundance Index (AI), which then draws down the harvest targets.

Deb Lyons is a troller, and the executive director of the Pacific Salmon Coalition, which represents Alaskan interests before the commission.

“We know the treaty’s badly broken, when you take depressed stocks that we don’t even catch, and use it as a way to restrict our harvest on components of our stock that are robust, hatchery-enhanced fish. They limit our access to fish at every turn. That was a big thing when the treaty was signed was that it was a rebuilding program, and fishermen in Alaska would share in rebuilding. And it’s one of the most bitter things I think for everyone here to see what this thing has become.”

The low abundance index and low wild escapement amount to a combination punch for trollers who target chinook in the spring fisheries, beginning May 1. ADF&G biologist Hagerman says the department is limiting fishing days, or delaying the spring trolling seasons around Juneau, Petersburg, and Ketchikan to as late as June — and closing the Baht Harbor fishery altogether.

As a result, more boats may be converging on the Sitka area, where there are no planned restrictions since spring fisheries target primarily kings produced in hatcheries.

And with kings down this year, it’s unlikely that chum will save the day. The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association still hasn’t unraveled the mystery of weak returns at its Hidden Falls Hatchery, where chum once poured in by the millions. NSRAA is forecasting a return of only 500,000 chum at Hidden Falls this year, and a combined run of 2.1 million at all its projects.

The news prompted Dale Kelley, director of the Alaska Trollers Association, to turn her thoughts to coho: “We’ve got to hope the coho are abundant, vibrant, and huge because we’re going to need them this year.”