Chum Salmon Flood Western Alaska Waters as Buyers Struggle to Keep Up

Western Alaska is in midst of one of the best salmon runs in decades, and that means both subsistence and commercial fishermen in waters around Norton Sound and Kotzebue are catching record numbers of chum.

Download Audio

Chum salmon leaping near Cold Bay, AK. Photo: K. Mueller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on August 28, 2011.
Chum salmon leaping near Cold Bay, AK. Photo: K. Mueller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on August 28, 2011.

“We’d forecasted a commercial harvest of 70-100,000 [of chum] and we’re going to blow right through that” said Jim Menard, the Arctic Area Manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The latest numbers point to Norton Sound passing 120,000 chums, the best harvest since 1986.

It’s the sixth season in a row of strong chum runs, but the fishery hasn’t always delivered. 2003 was an especially poor year, when the combined commercial harvest of all salmon species was the second lowest on record.

Menard said relief came when the salmon bounced back the next year.

“It was some sort of the strangest reaction… I actually got tears in my eyes and I said, ‘God I’m getting emotional here, we’ve got fish!’ It was like, whoa here we go, and that was the greatest pink salmon run in Norton Sound was 2004 and it was just crazy, the line of fishing down the Nome River and everyone catching pink salmon and you, know, we were waving, and just to really see a turnaround starting in 2004.”

Despite the salmon surge that year, Fish and Game continued to limit subsistence fishing around Nome, with permits based on a household’s historical dependence on chum. Menard recalls that many fishermen ended up sitting on the beach, but those restrictions were lifted in 2006 as escapement continued to rise.

Menard stressed that subsistence is the first priority when it comes to fishing in Norton Sound.

“People want fish, people need fish, and it’s definitely something we take very seriously is [that] subsistence comes first. It’s escapement and subsistence, and they need their fish and then we’ll go commercial fishing after that.”

The surge of salmon in the waters of western Alaska is also feeding Kotzebue’s fishery. Last year’s commercial chum harvest was the second highest on record—and this year’s harvest could be just as strong.

But no matter how strong the runs are, Menard said both Kotzebue and Norton Sound are limited by buyer capacity. “The buyers, you know, they get plugged, and there’s only so much they can do. In Kotzebue we’ve stopped fishing the last few days because the buyer is swamped and, you know, Bristol Bay has come on strong, Prince William Sound, and, they fly those fish out of Kotzebue.”

Fish and Game closed the Kotzebue fishery from Thursday July 16 until Monday July 20 due to buyer capacity concerns. While the fishery reopened on that Monday, Kotzebue’s sole buyer, Copper River Seafoods, placed a limit on how much they would buy from each fishermen, urging fishermen to avoid catching more than they can sell.

It’s a similar story in Norton Sound, as its lone buyer, Norton Sound Seafood Products, can only process so much. Despite limitations, Menard is optimistic that the coming months will be good fishing—and not just for chums.

“The fishing’s going very well for an odd-numbered pink year it’s going very good and the real pleasant surprise was how the sockeye salmon came in. We did not think it was going to be that strong. So now we’re waiting on the silver salmon, and we think the silver salmon run is going to be pretty decent this year.”

While the fishing has been strong so far, just how strong won’t be known until the silver run kicks into full swing.