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NOAA's "Home Run" Pink Salmon Forecast Materializes in 2011 and Allows Southeast Alaska Resource Stakeholders to Optimize a 58M Fish Harvest Valued at >$95M

Pink salmon are notoriously difficult to forecast due to their highly variable ocean mortality and their brief 1.5 year ocean residence, both of which preclude managers from using leading indicator year-class information. For the past 8 years, the AFSC has provided pink salmon forecasts to resource stakeholders in Southeast Alaska. These forecasts are made possible by a small team of scientists who have maintained the AFSC's Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring (SECM) project since 1997.

The SECM project studies the marine ecosystem of Southeast Alaska and the adjacent Gulf of Alaska to better understand essential fish habitat, climate change, and factors responsible for fishery recruitment, including highly migratory species such as Pacific salmon. These SECM forecasts are based on metrics associated with juvenile salmon sampled by surface trawls fished miles offshore in regional migration corridors, including both regional physical conditions and basin-scale factors operating in the Gulf of Alaska.

The NOAA data is shared with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), which modifies its regional forecast based on SECM "juvenile pink" data. The NOAA forecast information is presented at a Southeast Alaska regional meeting, the Purse Seine Task Force, which is well attended by fishers, processors, industry representatives, managers, researchers, and reporters.

Pink salmon harvests in Southeast Alaska have ranged from 12 to 45M fish over the past 5 years, with an overall average harvest of about 26M fish. In contrast, based on the SECM survey data from the 2010 sampling year, the NOAA pink salmon forecast for 2011 was 56.2M fish, an anticipated harvest more than double the recent 5-year average.

At the writing of this article, the total Southeast Alaska pink salmon harvest for 2011 is 58.5M fish. A high market demand for salmon in 2011 has contributed to increased value of the catch. Consequently, the 2011 harvest has an ex-vessel commercial value of about $96M U.S. dollars about triple the next highest value year over the past 15 years. Moreover, to put this excellent Southeast Alaska pink salmon catch into a numerical perspective, it represents over one-third of the total numbers of salmon commercially harvested in Alaska from all salmon species in 2011. Southeast Alaska pink salmon stocks originate from over 2,000 stream systems in the region, are 98% wild, and are actively managed in-season by the ADF&G.

Without the foresight of this high forecast for pink salmon in 2011, processors and fisherman may not have been prepared to handle this volume of commercial catch, and thus the NOAA data permitted optimal harvest and processing strategies to be anticipated and planned out.

For more information on NOAA pink salmon forecasts and methodology, please see: http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/ABL/MSI/msi_sae_psf.htm.

By Joe Orsi

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