The impact of poor salmon returns to Haines and the fishing industry

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HAINES, Alaska (KTUU) - Salmon fishing is an economic driver in Southeast Alaska, but unpredictable returns have made life difficult for those who rely on fishing for their incomes.

Nygell Webb-Duffy, a young fisherman in Haines who got into the industry four years ago, said the last couple of years have been “really hit or miss.”

He recently bought his own fishing boat from a friend he worked for who let him pay off the cost slowly. The 2018 season saw “a lot more time spent out there with a lot less fish caught.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Fish Technician Lyndsey Hura spends the summer getting fishing reports from commercial fishermen in Haines.

She noticed that gillnetters have been targeting chum salmon, as the more profitable sockeye salmon have been returning in lower numbers. “Chum salmon now are the money maker,” Hura said.

The impact of a slow sockeye season is felt across town.

Hura says everyone is related to or knows a commercial fisherman and when there’s a big fishing season it “impacts people who aren't directly connected to the fishery - it's a big difference.”

In 2018, the fishery was able to meet its sockeye escapement goals after a mammoth run one weekend.

“Gillnetters and subsistence fishermen were limiting out in hours, some in minutes,” Hura said. “Some people got 90-100 sockeye.”

For the Tlingit people, salmon has a profound significance.

“When I was growing up in Haines and Klukwan, we didn’t have stores, we lived on salmon and wildlife. It’s a very strong part of the Tlingit people,” said Joe Hotch, an 88-year-old Tlingit man who fished commercially for 75 years.

Hotch says mismanagement of the fishery has “harmed the food and harmed the salmon.”

However, he remains optimistic about the future in advocating for salmon. “If we can continue to voice our opinion, the future for my children, my grandchildren and everyone else’s children will be good.”

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