Addressing the Current State of Alaskan Fisheries; an essay by Ard Stetts. Created June 14th 2018
The title represents my thought process as I begin to write today, unlike Vice President Albert Gore’s film titled An Inconvenient Truth I won’t go so far to say this is a truth, more it is my studied opinion regarding salmon in Alaska. While there are 5 species of Pacific Salmon that return to the rivers where I live I am at this time moved to air my thoughts based on the worsening situation that our rivers are facing with regard to the King Salmon. In this part of South Central Sockeye and Silver Salmons are also teetering precariously on a year by year basis also.
I first came to Alaska in 1989 and needless to say this was a different place then. The population was hovering around 545,000 covering the entire state. The current numbers for just the City of Anchorage and Matanuska Susitna Borough is at 402,649 persons with 298,00 of those in Anchorage proper as of 2016 census. I think I’m safely on target saying that the bulk of population growth over the past 29 years has taken place in my specific region of Alaska. The current state wide numbers are around 733,000 with that in mind the change can be attributed to this area so to say. Bare in mind that the 1989 figures have fluctuated seasonally as some folks became disenchanted with the long winters and returned to from whence they had come.
This area has over the past 9 years seen a dramatic reduction in some populations though and those populations of which I speak of are salmon, most notably the King or Chinook salmon. The Pacific Silver and Sockeye salmons are not far behind in their inability to keep up with the increased pressure on their ranks. Now here’s where this comes to the opinion part. What I can present as a fact is that locally the King salmon numbers are at about 24% as of this day that they were just last year on this day. The alarming part of this fact is that last year these rivers failed to meet the “minimum escapement” number for the species. Allow me to describe what “escapement” means please. When salmon spawn their begins a game of numbers and percentages. Among the things one must consider are whether or not the completed nest itself will survive. There are many things that can cause total catastrophic loss to a completed salmon nest site. Among the threats are (to mention a few) a human a moose or bear walks directly onto the redd and disrupts the eggs where they have been deposited. The jet blast from the many river boats that prowl the areas where the fish have spawned can and will completely blow out the substrate where the eggs have been deposited also. Further threats include a sustained period of low water after the spawning which can desiccate or cause super warming of the substrate and the eggs during the critical time period of gestation within the eggs. Conversely a period of extensive rainfall and flooding event after the nest has been set can scour the beds or cause excessive silt to settle into the gravel and effectively suffocate the developing eggs there.
There are more threats but I think that will get you on track with the threat matrix involved just with eggs and alvin’s in the streams and rivers. Next in the ‘escapement’ game comes survival as a juvenal salmon. After you exit the nest site substrate you make your way to shore, it may be late October when you make this move and the waters may be cooling and dropping with the coming of winter. Over the long cold winter under the ice you will forage for whatever you can find to provide subsistence until the ice goes out in May. If you (the fry) have been counted among the fortunate you have survived the winter and are now approaching fingerling size come June of your first year. By summers end you may be a full 3″ in size but have spent the summer evading Kingfishers, common Merganser’s, Terns and Gulls as well as Salmon Smolt from previous years hatching and rainbow trout, char and etc. The list of threats is deep but I’m hoping the readers get the inference here.
Continuing along with the theme of being an “escapement” fish, by the second full year in the natal river the fish may be nearly 5 or more inches in size depending on how things went in the game of survival and all that. At this point the fish may leave for the ocean by fall or based on genetic predisposition etc. it may stay until year 2 when it can be a full smolt size at nearly 10 inches. If you’ve made it to being ten inches and have not yet been eaten or killed chances are you’re gonna taste salt water soon. In the salt begins another whole gauntlet that these fish must endure. I am not overly well versed at marine biology & zoology but I can name a few of the usual suspects when it comes to eating / killing a young or maturing salmon. Orca’s – Sea Lions – Spotted Seals – Beluga Whales – Sharks – and of course Commercial Fisheries enter into the threat matrix at sea. Then there are the ‘personal use set net fisheries along the shores near natal rivers as well as personal use dip netting that Alaskan residents are entitled to make use of. Those fish that survive everything I’ve detailed (and a whole lot more) and get to enter their natal rivers in the effort to reproduce are what the department of fish and game calls “the escapement fish”.
So here you are an ‘escapement salmon’ entering the river of your birth on a mission to procreate your species but it isn’t over my friend not by a long shot it isn’t over. Remember that population thing I opened up with? Let us assume that people don’t move to Alaska especially to the Matanuske Susitna Valley because of our warm beaches and fantastic weather trends, I’ll go as far to say many are outdoors types who want to sample the bounty of Alaska they have heard and read about since they were children. If they aren’t fishermen when they get here they will soon meet someone who is and that someone may very well spin the tales of King Salmon fishing to the newcomer. The size, the excitement, the battle involved in landing one and of course the fact that there are few fish available that make finer table fare than a fresh Alaskan King Salmon……….. needless to say the pressure is on if you happen to be one of the few, the proud, the escapement fish! It may be time to share another fact with you, South Central Alaska, The Mat Su Valley and The Kenai Peninsula actually account for a majority of Alaska’s road system. It is that road system that provides access albeit limited to what were once the most productive rivers and creeks in South Central Alaska for all five species of Pacific Salmons.
With the roads comes access points for river boats and there are plenty of those ranging from the 16 foot John boat with 25 HP motors to the Thunder Jets with 454 Chevy engines powering tremendous jet props. The remark I made about jet blast cleaning out a salmon nest isn’t some imaginary thing I conjured up in my paranoid subconscious it’s as real as night and day. In some stretches of rivers you can see the tracks on the bottom blown clean by jet blasts. So what do I do because I operate a jet myself you may wonder? I’ve figured it out that if I run with my motor at the maximum trim level that will still produce propulsion but that propulsion stream exits my tunnel almost perfectly parallel to the surface of the water and not directed at a 20 degree downward angle to or at the river bottom I do way less damage. Does that make me without sin? I can’t say for sure but I’m able to think it matters to some extent. I like to think that having came here from north Central Pennsylvania I brought a few decent traits along with me. My native state was ravaged by clear cut logging before my birth in 1954 and mining drainage that had left devastating effects well into the 1970′s in my part of the state. I did however live there to witness the rebound of the fisheries resources especially the wild trout fisheries. Coming from a wild trout background I understood well what spawning is all about and also tread very carefully when I know wild fish are about. I grew up in an environment on the mend and also an environment where we lived by the rule, ‘Limit your kill don’t kill your limit’. I realize that not everyone has come from my background and many see wild fisheries as a limitless resource. Sadly that is not the case, and to wit not the case in Alaska.
As we have collectively slid into this dark pit where the salmon become harder and harder to find the state has taken (in most cases) appropriate actions in that many of our rivers have been closed to retention of fish with all fishing being single hook artificial lure catch and release. Once a King salmon has been caught it must be released without its being removed from the water. As I write this article the whole of the rivers of South Central are closed to retention of King salmon and the World Famous Copper River and its drainage has been closed to fishing for Sockeye salmon as well as kings!
So what’s up? When you ask that question of 20 different fishermen you may get several different answers although some will be of a correlating premise put into different words and terms. In essence everyone I’ve spoke to over the past few seasons has something or some entity they place blame on for this break in the continuity of the Alaskan lifestyle. The majority of opinion I hear is that it is the commercial fisheries who are at the root of our collective sorrows. A few point to the seals and Orca’s as the possibilities. One fellow suggested that it is that they are literally starving to death at sea due to competition for food sources from other salmon species. Still another theory floated is that a combination of pH changes in ocean waters and climate changes are working together to affect the amount and quality of available food supply. That water quality theme also plays into the concerns over warming natal streams being unable to support the successful nesting sites. I could go on ad nauseam with more theory and opinion but I’ll move to another paragraph and tell you what I think.
So what is it, what do you think is happening Ard? This is where I suggest the ‘Inconvenient Possibility’
I think our transgressions are coming home to roost in a collective manner. To some extent I believe that every point of blame or reasoning I’ve had presented to me may be playing a role in the big picture. There is however one thing that no one has voiced to me when the lamenting over the lack of salmon comes to the forefront of conversation and I might add the conversation often goes to that point here at this time. The ‘thing’ that has not been mentioned reflects back to how I began this writing. Population growth pressure, harvest on all fronts but most especially those “escapement” fish. It is the escapement number of adult salmon upon whom the burden of propagating the future generations of returns rests squarely upon. It will help if the reader understands that any egg deposited in a gravel bed this year by a King salmon will not be returning as an adult fish for 5 years, that’s 2023 for the survivors to appear. With that in mind one may be better able to imagine how it is that this extreme shortage of adult numbers has been slowly dwindling to a from bad to worse condition over the past 8 years. Although common sense leads us to ask why wasn’t the limit reduced from 5 per year to just one or 2 ten years ago? Pressure, pressure on the department of fish and game applied by the tourist industry, by the residential fishermen, by the commercial guides association, all of these culminate in political pressure to keep things going as they have always ran. The King salmon is the 14 point Boon & Crockett Mule Deer, it’s the perfect ten point white tail deer, it’s the 24 pound Wild Turkey Gobbler, it’s the King of Salmon and the pressure on the King has been intense to say the very least.
Ever since I took up permanent residency here in 2004 I noticed a pattern. The Kings are the first of the salmon species to return to Alaska’s rivers each year. Private residents and guides alike prize them as do the thousands of anglers who come from all points of the globe to get their King or Kings. For residents and guides the hens were highly coveted. Why would that be? Wouldn’t killing the hen fish, if the female is a fully matured adult in the 30 pound and over class can produce as many as 5000 eggs be counter productive? Not to an angler or guide that intends to remove those huge sacks of potential salmon in the form of eggs and then brine them to be used as egg sack baits for the Pacific Silvers that will be entering the rivers in just 5 short weeks behind the early kings. It doesn’t stop there, all of the guides I know and a great many residents I have met then take the eggs from the female Silver Salmon, brine them and store them in the deep freezer to be used for King Salmon bait in the following years run. Are you getting a sense of a defeating purpose in all of this? Being a fly fisherman I’ve never had a use for salmon eggs. I decided ten years ago without any outside influence to return all hen salmon so that they can lay those precious eggs.
You see, salmon are like chickens or turkeys in that a few males can and will mate with as many hens as they can physically manage. In the case of Pacific Salmon they literally spawn till they die. With that in mind the retention of females has not made a lick of sense to me and I find the sad spectacle of harvesting the eggs of future generations of salmon to use only to kill more of the same to be unconscionable. Whatever you do don’t get the idea that I’ve never killed and eaten an Alaskan king Salmon. That would be dead wrong (pun intended) I have I did but once the hand writing came to the walls here I stopped back in 2011 when I took three. The limit was 5 and I may have caught and released another 20 or more but I took three that year and that was the last. Since then I’ve had a couple memorable days, notably one morning in 2015 when I was able to catch 13 kings in one hour and forty five minutes. Each and every one released in prime shape, you gotta figure that with only 1 and 3/4 hours to get that done I didn’t mess with them once hooked, I reeled them in popped the hook and was grateful for the experience. Those days at the present seem to be gone until further notice.
It’s us. It’s all of us but I have to say that there have been commercial fisheries since before I was born. There have been Sea Loins, Spotted Seals, Orca’s and Beluga whales since time immemorial. The climate has changed over the 12,000 years since the great glacial epochs and floods & droughts are as much a part of this species environment as the waters themselves. What is new and definitely different is that over the past 40 years the population and associated pressures on those precious escapement fish has exploded. We have loved catching and killing King salmon to death. It is us, the people who have been killing the survivors here in the natal rivers and creeks that have tipped the balance. The folks who talk to me about this situation seem to be so opposed to this thought that is is obvious. I don’t preach it, I make mention that I think we may have over-killed but I don’t enter into debates on the topic. I see this like a community with a limited aquifer to draw water from deciding that everyone is entitled to have a swimming pool only when the wells run dry they are desperately searching for someone other than the pool owners to blame for the dry wells.
What do I think should be done to preserve the species for the future, even possibly restore them in numbers? I believe a complete moratorium on the harvest of escapement fish (especially Kings but Silvers are also in danger) coupled with effective limits and enforcement on the commercial drift netters in Cook Inlet is overdue. The burden and penalty’s of exploiting the species should be shared across the fisheries as a whole. From where I’m at right here & now I don’t see any other course that would make sense. Five year fish need five years of protection to even regain a toehold over the current state of the Kings. This would entail South Central and parts of Western Alaska also. The Kings are in danger of becoming threatened all over the state. Some areas still have good silver numbers and kings aren’t as scarce but those rivers are accessible by float plane and lodges only. That is what is keeping the numbers up, not as many people killing them.
Addendum July 26th 2018; To the best of my understanding the Kenai River Sockeye fishery has been limited to one fish, (1) fish per day pre angler due to a very poor return rate.
The Dip Netting has been closed the cumulative run number is currently at 399, 500 fish which is far below the one million generally recorded by this date. The usual limit at this time is 6 per day. Things are changing fast.
July 29th, 2018; As if any further observations need be made I’ve noticed an interesting trend over the past 8 years. In a river local to me while 4 species of salmon have declined one seems to be thriving. When it comes to table fare or fish of commercial value most of us are aware that King, Sockeye, Pink and Pacific Silver salmon are preferred. That leaves the lowly Chum or Dog Salmon which to the best of my understanding is a species that few harvest for use at dinner.
So what’s interesting? Each year as our rivers have gotten closer to not meeting the escapement goals for 4 species the chum population is booming. When I consider that as a lay person of fisheries knowledge it gives me pause. As I said in the opening post there is a camp which theorizes that food resources in the ocean and Inlet may be responsible for the noticeable crash year after year of our prized game & food fishes. That’s just one theory being batted around but it leaves me wondering where are all those chum getting the groceries?
Meanwhile the Nushagak River which is a remote system in the Bristol Bay region experienced some 93,300 Kings returning this year while most rivers in populated areas remain closed to King Salmon fishing? I’m sticking with the ‘people killing escapement fish’ idea myself.