ANCHORAGE, AUG. 24 -- Pink salmon, some of which hatched last spring after Prince William Sound was fouled by oil, are returning this year in record numbers. Fishermen have caught more than 40 million, far eclipsing the previous record harvest of 29 million three years ago.
"We've had a real good show of fish," said James Brady, a state fisheries biologist who oversees the annual summer salmon harvest. The lone problem is an unusually high number of small pinks difficult to market.
Some fishermen have questioned whether the oil spill has affected the pinks' growth, said Marilyn Leland, who works for Cordova Fishermen District United, a fishermen's association. But Brady said the problem most likely is related to other factors, such as problems in feeding during the pinks' stay in ocean feeding grounds.
Some of the pinks are wild fish that hatched last year in tidal areas scarred by the more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude that gushed from the grounded tanker Exxon Valdez in March 1989.
But, as in recent years, the vast majority of returning pinks were released from hatcheries in the sound. Pink salmon are the most abundant but least valuable of five Pacific salmon species caught in Alaska, and they have the shortest life cycle.
Both wild pinks and hatchery fish swam through the sound to winter in ocean feeding grounds last year. Then they returned this year in a final migration to spawn.
Seine boats that encircle the fish with large nets and gillnet boats that string out long narrow nets have spread through much of the sound in fisheries that have lasted for days.
Fresh from the sea, pinks are silver-hued with a pink-colored meat that often ends up in cans. In the blue-green water around the hatcheries, the fish appear much darker as they gather in schools.
"We're probably a week past the peak" of the run, said Bruce Suzumoto, president of Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., a nonprofit association that is owned by fishermen and operates three of the largest hatcheries. There will be a few more good days of fishing, then "people are going to start hanging it up," he said.
Last summer, floating oil slicks forced closure of some sound fishing grounds and canceled openings in others. Often, hundreds of boats crowded small oil-free areas, creating combat-like fishing conditions.
Fishermen had expressed concern that the oil would cause serious damage to young fish that would return eventually to sustain future harvests.
Scientists expect to study the oil's impact for years, and many finished studies are being kept confidential as lawyers prepare for court cases evolving from the spill.
At Esther Island, the aquaculture corporation's largest hatchery, 9 percent of pinks released last spring returned to the sound this year, nearly double the percent average rate of past years.
The young salmon appear to have thrived because of an excellent bloom of plankton that, despite the spill, appeared last year in the sound. Plankton is the food on which pinks feed in the crucial early weeks after being released from hatcheries, according to Suzumoto.
Pink runs in other areas hit by the spill are not faring as well as those in the sound.
In Cook Inlet off south-central Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, fewer than 500,000 pinks have been caught, a fraction of the 2.4 million predicted harvest. In Kodiak, a harvest of 8.2 million to 15 million pinks was forecast, but the final catch is likely to be closer to 9 million, said Herman Savikko, a biologist with the state Fish and Game Department.
Meanwhile, in southeast Alaska, a new and unwelcome visitor was found this week. The Associated Press reported that federal biologists documented the first-ever Atlantic salmon off Alaska.
Biologists said they suspect that it escaped from a British Columbia fish farm, where such salmon are raised by the thousands. Such fish farming is banned in Alaska, and biologists said the escaped Atlantic salmon could transfer diseases to wild Alaska stocks.
"It's not a good situation if it happens in large numbers," Ken Leon, a state regional biologist told the AP. "The risk is based on how many of these fish have escaped and how many happen to carry a disease not indigenous to the Northwest."