Symposium yields no easy answers on season’s low king salmon counts

 Salmon researchers, managers, and users gathered in Anchorage Oct. 22 and 23 to talk about what happened to chinook salmon around Alaska this summer.
The simplest answer is that chinooks didn’t show up. And no one knows exactly why.
“We’re not sure what is causing the downturn, and in many cases, we do not have the basic information needed to understand the causes,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Bob Clark, summarizing some of the two-day symposium’s findings.
Attendees at the Salmon Symposium identified much of the information that would be helpful for future research and management efforts. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is working on a draft analysis for research needs in the future.
Salmon management stems from escapement goals, which are set, by species, for various streams and rivers throughout Alaska. That number is the amount managers want to get upstream to reproduce.
Fish and Game uses management tools to try and keep state fisheries at a level that allows for escapement, and the National Marine Fisheries Service does the same in federally managed waters through caps on allowable bycatch of king salmon in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries.
Developing the goals, let alone finding ways to meet them, can be difficult. The process is undertaken byDepartment of Fish and Game, although the actual goals are set — and changed — by the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
State biologist Tom Vania said that how often the goals are updated depends, in part, on how much information is involved in setting them. Escapement goals with more years of data are slower to change, because they generally reflect more knowledge of the river system in question.
But sometimes, updates are necessary. One such instance is on the Kenai, where the transition to a new sonar system to count fish in 2012 has managers looking to update the numbers to better reflect how many fish are actually out there. Similar changes had to be made when counting on the Anchor River was changed from aerial surveys to a weir system.
Escapement goals have a relationship with chinook survival that isn’t entirely clear. Generally, they’re the department’s best idea of the ideal number of salmon needed for reproduction. Too high or too a low a goal has potential for less than ideal spawning, which could result in less than ideal runs in the future.
Managing exploitation to meet escapement goals is another challenge.
Vania said different strategies are used on different rivers. Among those are openings on certain days of the week, regulations regarding gear, bag limits, and catch and release status.
On the federal side, managing bycatch is the biggest part of helping ensure chinooks make it to their home streams each year. Several members of the public asked about the chinook bycatch.
Jim Ianelli, from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, talked about what’s been done in terms of bycatch.
The Bering Sea pollock fishery, the largest source of bycatch, has reduced its take of chinooks in recent years, after the North Pacific council approved a hard cap of 60,000 chinooks in 2009 that took effect in 2011.
The 60,000 fish cap is partitioned between vessels thatsign Incentive Plan Agreements, so it’s unlikely that the total cap would be met as bycatch of chinooks in the Bering Sea has only exceeded 60,000 in a few seasons over the last 20 years. The regulation states that the 60,000 cap cannot be reached more than twice in any seven-year period or the cap will revert to a limit of 47,591 chinooks.
So far, the industry has stayed well below both numbers, although concerns were raised in 2011 after half the chinook bycatch of about 25,000 fish for the year was taken in the last month of the season as vessels tried to mop up the pollock quota.
The impact of bycatch is hard to precisely gauge, because a salmon might be caught for subsistence needs, or it might make it upstream to spawn, creating fish for future years. And the unknowns about a chinook’s life are difficult to account for.

But Ianelli said that based on the strength of the recent runs, there might have been about 4 percent more fish had there not been any pollock bycatch.

Under the NMFS program in the Bering Sea, all vessels must be observed, and bycatch kept, which provides opportunities for inquiries into the bycatch, where it comes from and how it’s caught. After it’s offloaded at the docks, the bycatch goes to food banks where possible, Ianelli said.

The program has also enabled more research to be done on what affects the amount of chinook caught while prosecuting other fisheries. Tow duration, time of day for fishing, and gear types all impact the final numbers. Generally, longer tows netted more chinooks, and early morning and pre-dawn tows had fewer salmon than other hours, Ianelli said.

The Gulf of Alaska is joining the Bering Sea in terms of observer coverage and bycatch management, Ianelli said. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved an annual cap for the Gulf pollock fishery of 25,000, which took effect during the summer and fall seasons this year, and is also deploying a new observer plan in 2013.

“(The plan) will improve the estimate of bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska,” Ianelli said.

Full retention of chinook bycatch will allow more definitive genetic identification work to identify the river of origin compared to past “opportunistic” sampling by observers that does not allow for extrapolating findings to the entire catch.

Another challenge for managing chinooks is that part of the Yukon run is required to make it across the border and into Canada under a treaty with the U.S.

John Linderman, from ADFG, said that, generally, the first half of the chinook run is Canadian, while the second half is American. Alaska managers must not just try to meet Alaskan needs, but also comply with the international treaty regarding Canadian escapement despite declining Canadian stocks.

A Galena fisherman, Greg Huntington, suggested potential causes of the Canadian chinook downturn. He said that freshwater habitat issues, like the river freezing down to gravel and spring flooding disrupting spawning grounds, could be partially to blame.

Linderman and others agreed that more info is needed on survival in general.


Subsistence difficulties

The symposium also included a discussion of subsistence fishing for chinooks. Those fisheries have faced closures in an effort to meet escapement goals.

Department of Fish and Game Subsistence Program Manager Jim Fall presented some of the department’s information on subsistence harvests.

More than half of the state’s subsistence chinook harvest comes from the Kuskokwim area, while another third is from the Yukon region. Bristol Bay rounds out the top three regions for subsistence chinook harvest.

This summer wasn’t a new event for subsistence fishermen. Fall said the state’s predicted subsistence needs were not met on the Yukon from 2008 to 2011, on the Susitna River in 2009 and 2011, and on the Kuskokwim in 2011.

Jackson Williams was one of many subsistence users who weighed in on the chinook dilemma. He asked about bycatch, but his comments offered a face to the people affected by the summer’s closures.

“Us people depend on Chinook,” Williams said. “…I don’t work. I only depend on the fish my creator gave to me.”

Fall talked about the importance of incorporating local knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge into the state’s base of information, something that several members of the public also suggested.

Suggestions of what factors have, in the past, correlated with changes in the runs could be a helpful place for researchers to look.

In his summation of the symposium, Clark agreed that utilizing other knowledge sources is important to the fishery.

“More local and traditional knowledge is needed to understand the context of the downturns we’re seeing recently,” he said.

The department is taking comments on its gap analysis of what research is needed until Nov. 9, and expects to publish the report in December.