By Lilly Milman
There has been a noticeable lack of pink salmon in Pullen Creek this year, which is uncharacteristic for the area and does not align with salmon runs in other parts of Southeast Alaska.
Pink salmon have a two-year lifecycle and the run strength varies in even and odd years. In Southeast, pink runs tend to be stronger during odd-numbered years. This summer’s missing run in Pullen is contrary to the migratory patterns observed the past 40 years, as salmon have typically been migrating into freshwater earlier each year, said David Tallmon, professor of biology at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.
In past years, pink salmon have typically run through Skagway around July. During the 2017 run, Andrew Cremata caught the first pink in saltwater on July 10, and the run came into Pullen Creek within two days.
Maybe this year’s Pullen Creek pink run is just late. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game does not track pink runs in Pullen. However, there have been reports of a few isolated pink and king salmon sightings, said Richard Chapell, Haines and Skagway area management biologist for the department’s sport fish division.
About two dozen salmon, mostly pinks and a couple of kings, were spotted in various stages of spawning by The Skagway News in Pullen Creek between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Aug. 18. “Two dozen pink salmon in Pullen Creek is a very small run. A big run would be thousands,” said Chapell, who observed about 90 pinks between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. Aug. 20.
Pinks already have returned to Nelson Creek in the Dyea Flats. Pink salmon have also been seen in the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers near Haines, Chapell said. The runs in these streams peaked early.
Chapell said Pullen Creek appears very low, and that there is no output from AP&T’s hydroelectric plant bringing water from Dewey Lake like in past years.
“The creek is so low,” he said. “I bet that rain last Friday helped a bunch of fish get up to the pond. We are lucky that there is any water for fish at all in this creek. Other streams have been disconnected from the ocean for two months.”
He was told by a saltwater fishing charter captain that there were very few pinks in the saltwater of Taiya Inlet as well, meaning that the overall abundance of fish must be low as well.
“ADF&G is seeing effects of sustained drier- and warmer-than-usual weather in Southeast Alaska this year,” Chapell said. “Aerial surveys show that some streams in upper Lynn Canal have gone dry, and pink salmon are holding in saltwater off the stream mouths waiting to enter and spawn.”
There has also been a delayed pink salmon run in Juneau’s Auke Creek, Tallmon said. He attributes the delay to the low water flow in the creek, which coincides with less rainfall and warmer weather. He anticipates a salmon run as soon as there is heavy rainfall in the area.
“It’s hard for the salmon to get out of the ocean and into the stream,” Tallmon said. “It’s a really stressful situation for the fish right now. We’re all praying for the rain.”
In November 2018, the state’s Division of Commercial Fisheries and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasted the pink salmon harvest in 2019 would be weak. This is likely the result of poor freshwater and early marine survival of the 2017 brood stock, according to a joint news release. Additionally, the surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska were unusually warm in 2018, which could also hurt pink salmon survival, the release noted.
There have been reports this summer of an unprecedented amount of dead pink salmon in Norton Sound on Alaska’s West Coast, according to Anchorage Daily News reports. It is likely that warmer water temperatures and higher concentrations of fish are causing the salmon to die before spawning, Wes Jones, fisheries director for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., told the newspaper.
There was also a die-off of several hundred hatchery-reared king salmon as a result of warm water conditions in Blind Slough near Petersburg this year, said Chapell. This was not the first time a warm water die-off happened in the area, he added.