Salmon run estimate up 53%

Commercial fishers head out to Alaska with high hopes

Between narrow time slots and the indeterminate variables of nature, salmon fishing could be called unpredictable, perhaps even unreliable.

But this year's forecast projects a better than average season for the purse seine fishermen departing from Fishermen's Terminal to the cool waters of Southeast Alaska. The commercial salmon season began June 21 with a forecasted harvest of 41 million pink salmon for the 2009 season, compared to 19 million predicted and an actual 14.3 million harvested in 2008, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A salmon fisher for 39 years out of Fishermen's Terminal, Kevin Patrick said, "This could be the best year we've had, potentially, in a long time."

The projected increase in salmon would do well against the depression of wild pink salmon prices and salmon farming, both of which have undercut the fishing business for years and lowered the industry's profitability, Patrick said. In 2002 the price of pink salmon in the Southeast Alaska region dropped to 9 cents per pound, but has steadily increased since, reaching 27 cents in 2008.

"Based on last year, there's a lot of optimism that prices will be good combined with good catches," said Bob Kehoe, executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association.

A good season of salmon fishing, from mid-June to mid-September, grosses on average about $150,000 per boat-before paying the crew and accounting for other expenses-according to Kehoe. Though forecasts and fisherman are optimistic for the year, Kehoe notes the nature of the industry remains fickle.

"The forecast of salmon returns is not always accurate. You never know exactly how many will come back. There's always a risk; there's always that concern," Kehoe said.

While the unpredictability of salmon fishing means it may not be a sole reliable source of income, commercial fishing continues to draw old and new boats to the water.

Patrick, owner of the purse seine vessel the Wonderland, began the trek for Southeast Alaska waters last weekend. In the off-season he paints the lettering on many boats docked in Fishermen's Terminal, builds crane machinery for the boats and does carpentry work. "You don't get rich with salmon fishing," Patrick added with a laugh.

But for a fisher, it's the unpredictable variables other than profit that draws them to the ocean.

"It's an adventure every year. It's outdoors. It's exciting, and you're your own boss," Patrick said.

For the 2009 season, 50 purse seine boats departed from Fisherman's Terminal, each seeking a slice of the slippery 41-million pie.[[In-content Ad]]