Once more the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is suggesting a lowering of the spawning goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon, the most revered fish in Alaska.
The last time the board reduced the goal, the argument was that a more accurate count provided by a new and improved sonar meant 15,000 of the newly counted fish really equaled 17,500 of the old counted fish.
Now there are discussions of cutting the goal further to 11,000 or so “big fish.”
Big fish – late-run kings larger than 34 inches – might be considered the money fish of the Kenai run, according to Tom Vania, the Southcentral region supervisor for the Sport Fish Division of the state agency.
Big fish carry big loads of eggs. Thus, from a production standpoint, they are the prime fish to put on the spawning beds.
Vania said only about 70 to 75 percent of the kings now being counted in the Kenai return are 34 inches or larger. And with Kenai king size trending downward, there is an argument to be made that the percentage of big fish in the overall run could continue to decline.
Thus the new and costly idea of counting big fish, an idea premised on the accuracy of a-less-than-perfect, in-river sonar to count fish, is being billed as a conservation proposal.
But what it’s really about is trying to maintain a viable population of fabled, late-run Kenai kings while aggressively prosecuting a commercial fishery for sockeye salmon in Cook Inlet.
Kenai kings are the weak player in a classic mixed stock fishery of the style that has caused problems all around the globe.
Mixed stock nightmares
Ireland in 2007 eliminated its offshore, mixed stock fisheries to help save the island’s iconic Atlantic salmon.
“…The Irish Government reaffirmed its commitment to aligning with the scientific advice for the 2007 salmon seasons and end(ed) mixed stock salmon fishing at sea,” notes a report from the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.
“Mixed stock fisheries will always present greater risks than when stocks are exploited separately…because of uncertainties or variability in the proportion of the catch originated from the weaker of the stocks. This is particularly true when there are large difference in the relative numbers of fish in each component stock as it may be difficult to estimate the impacts on the smaller stocks.”
The differences between Kenai king and sockeye stocks are beyond large. They are huge. Tens of thousands of late-run kings return each year mixed in with millions of sockeyes.
The number of kings that die in the commercial fishery is unknown. Fish and Game has pegged the reported commercial harvest at anyhwere from 8 percent to 33 percent of the run, but no one knows how many kings go unreported.
Nor does anyone have an idea as to the number of fish snagged in gillnets only to dropout and die unharvested and unspawned. The U.S. Fish and Widlife Service, in opposing a permit to allow the native village of Ninilchik to put a subsistence gillnet in the Kenai River, suggests dropout mortalities could be as high as 30 percent.
Big runs, little runs
With Kenai king mortality rates a moving target, what is known for sure is that Kenai king returns have been falling.
The peak return, as estimated by Fish and Game, was 101,000 late-run kings in 2004. They that year came back mixed in among 7.8 million sockeye.
Since then, the king returns have fallen to about a third of that peak, but sockeye returns have remained robust. State fisheries managers now consider a return of 6 million an “average” year. The historic average before and after Alaska statehood was less than half that, but the state has managed sockeye salmon well.
That has only added to the problems in managing kings, or Chinook as they are otherwise called. Big sockeye harvests in the commercial fishery since the 1980s have only heightened expectations of big sockeye harvests in the commercial fishery, and funded commercial fishermen to lobby even harder for continued big runs (and harvests) of sockeye.
As the Canadians noted in a look back at 130 years of history on the Skeena River of British Columbia, ” ‘mixed-stock fisheries’ remain entrenched because they are logistically expedient and because salmon are commercially most valuable in tidal waters (coast and river). Fisheries managers are thus faced with a trade-off that remains unresolved – how to reap the benefits from commercially valuable stocks while maintaining the diversity essential for sustainability.”
The state of Alaska has spent millions of dollars – no one in state government seems to have any idea at this point of how many millions – trying to solve this unsolvable problem. No estimate is available on the cost of the new “big fish” management plan likely to be considered by the state Board of Fisheries this winter.
If the Canadians and the Irish are to be believed, however, the way in which the fish are counted means little. It really comes down to how they are managed.
“Unless it is possible to selectively harvest productive populations, the overall harvest rate must be reduced to ensure the conservation of the less productive stocks in a mixed-stock harvest,” Chris C. Woods of Fisheries and Oceans Canada wrote in the Skeena report.
But that idea is anathema to Cook Inlet commercial fishing organizations which are now asking the Board of Fish to increase the harvest rate for sockeye in the big, mixed-stock fishery that is Cook Inlet. That can only make king salmon management more difficult.
“The most important lesson from the last 30 years is that non-selective, mixed-stock fishing in tidal waters must be reduced to conserve salmon diversity in the Skeena and elsewhere,” Woods wrote.
In Cook Inlet, where the management scheme has gone in the opposite direction for a decade, however, salmon managers appear to have been working off a different lesson plan.
In Cook Inlet, it is all about maximizing the harvest in non-selective, mixed-stock fisheries in tidal waters while trying to find some magic solution to conserving weaker runs of salmon not only to the Kenai but to the Susitna and other rivers as well.