While a troller fishes in the background, the seiner St. Teresa brings in a set of cost-recovery chum in Crawfish Inlet. NSRAA releases two chum stocks, a summer run reared at Hidden Falls Hatchery, and a fall run reared at Medvejie/Bear Cove. This latter stock is driving the record harvest in Sitka Sound in August. (NSRAA image)

The troll fishery for chum salmon in Sitka Sound has gone from looking pretty dismal, to record-setting — almost overnight.

A surge of hatchery-produced, fall chum has been pushing catch rates for trollers into numbers normally seen by the net fisheries.

The troll catch for chum in Sitka Sound hit a new record on Friday, August 27, with almost half-a-million fish, about 50,000 more than the old record set in 2013. And the fishing isn’t over yet.

Even more extraordinary is the turnaround in chum this year, from zero to hero. June and July were bad, and then…

“Early to mid-August they just started hitting the hooks for the trollers,” said Scott Wagner, general manager of the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association. “That’s what the first indication was.”

Although NSRAA is a nonprofit hatchery based in Sitka, the payday for the fleet has been significant, especially when you add in the chum harvest  from Crawfish Inlet (175,000), about 20 miles to the south: 158 permit holders have been landing anywhere between 200 and 600 fish per day. At around $1.15 per pound, and six-pound average, that totals over $4.6 million.

This is the kind of volume more typical of purse seiners, whose bigger boats and large nets scoop up fish by the hundreds. Trollers are hook-and-line boats that catch salmon one-at-a-time, and Wagner says they were doing generally better out in Sitka Sound than seiners, which concentrate their effort in the bays, near the release sites.

Despite the large numbers, it’s still fishing, and not all gear groups saw the same success. Wagner says that gillnetters appear to have missed the boat this year.

“Unfortunately for them (gillnetters) they have not had a good year at Deep Inlet,” said Wagner. “Trollers are having really good interception. The few times when you have the right weather and wind conditions to push them into the inlet, they were not in the right place at the right time to catch them, and those went to the seine fleet.”

NSRAA chum have made headlines before. In 2018, the first year of the Crawfish Inlet project, there was a return of 3.4 million fish — a staggering success rate for a release of 20 million fry just three years earlier. The composition of this year’s big return is also mostly three-year olds, and Wagner is unsure why. NSRAA has traditionally based its forecast models on four-year old chum. The prevailing theory on these swings in abundance is warming ocean temperatures.

“I think what we’re seeing is the impact of The Blob,” said Wagner,” that heatwave that hit the gulf 2016-18. Those impacts linger several years and we’re just now seeing reports that the plankton makeup in the gulf is just now rebounded from the shift that happened during those warm years.”

A striking comparison can be found in the 2020 season in Deep Inlet, when only 700,000 fish total returned, on a release of 55 million fry.

Even on a good run like this year’s in Sitka Sound, success isn’t uniform, and can even be mysterious. About twice as many of the chum being caught right now are headed back to the Medvejie hatchery in Bear Cove, although less than half as many fry were released there (20 million) than at Deep Inlet (55 million). The two release sites are only 12 miles apart by water.

As much as is known about rearing salmon, Wagner says there’s a lot of uncertainty.

“There is a lot of thought process and research and science in it,” said Wagner, “but it’s a giant black box out there that you dump everything into and see what comes out.”

NSRAA wrapped up its cost-recovery fishing on August 25 — where it harvests and sells enough salmon to cover the expenses of hatchery operations. The Department of Fish & Game opened Crawfish Inlet to “common property” seining on August 26, in order to minimize the straying of hatchery-produced chum into streams that already support wild stocks. Seining will remain open until September 24.