Chum numbers up, but price down in Kotzebue Sound fishery
Though the chum salmon numbers in Kotzebue Sound were exceptionally high this year, the price per pound was exceptionally low, leaving some captains wondering how long they can keep up their summer fishing habit.
This summer's healthy fish numbers were a direct result of strong numbers in 2008 and 2009, said Jim Menard, the area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Since 2008 and 2009 were healthy years, the 2012 and 2013 seasons saw those four- and five-year-old fish coming back in large amounts.
"The overall chum run to Kotzebue Sound in 2013 was estimated to be well above average based on commercial harvest rates, subsistence fishermen reporting good catches, and the Kobuk test fish index being the highest in the 21-year project history," read a season summary from ADF&G.
The commercial fishery in the Kotzebue Sound District opened on July 10 with fishing open six days a week for spans of four to eight hours for the first few weeks. During the peak of the season - late July through mid-August - fishing was limited due mostly to limited cargo space on the planes leaving Kotzebue. When the planes were full, the fishing had to stop. Openings during that time were four hours or less.
Of the 66 permit holders, 65 sold to the major buyer in the region, Great Pacific Seafoods. One permit holder sold locally to Maniilaq Services. For the majority of the season, Great Pacific, the only major buyer, bought the chum at $0.25 per pound, a 15 percent decrease from last season. The drop in price likely accounts for a 20 percent drop in the number of permit holders, Menard said.
Robert Richards, Sr. has been fishing the Sound commercially since 1976. He said with the drop in fish prices, plus rising fuel costs, he made just enough to "put food on the table."
The fishing was good this year and last, he said, but the prices were so low, he's not making much money.
"We need another buyer," he said. Another buyer would mean more competitive prices.
Richards noted that near the end of the season, the price jumped up to $0.35 per pound when Maniilaq Services started buying from more permit holders. For Great Pacific to retain its sellers, it had to raise its price to stay competitive. By the end of the season, the average price for the season was $0.27 per pound.
And while he's thankful there's any buyer at all, Richards said he'd like to see the local fisheries association try and solicit more buyers so they can potentially get a better price.
When he started fishing in the Sound, Richards said he was making upwards of $0.50 per pound.
More planes would also help, Richards added. With limited cargo space, fishermen are limited during peak season because there simply isn't room for the fish to go out.
The biggest one-day catch this year was July 23 when 17, 712 chum were sold during a six-hour opening. That was the second-greatest catch in 20 years, according to the summary. The total season commercial harvest of chum salmon was 319, 062, which is the highest since 1988.
Though the low price for chum for regional commercial boats has been a source of financial stress, in past years there have been no major buyers in the region at all. And last year, with construction at the airport, even with a buyer, the planes were even more scarce, leaving openings even more limited.
"The buyer (GPS) was efficient this year and they were able to keep things running smoothly," Menard said.
In 2001, there were two major buyers paying for chum in the Sound, but in 2002 and 2003, there were none. Great Pacific has been the major buyer since 2004.
"It's important that we keep Great Pacific up here," said Richards who fishes with his sons. "And I understand that a lot of buyers can't afford to come up here, but I'd like to see my kids get into it and with gas prices and the price to maintain the boat, we're not making much money."