Salmon sell out


One of the millions of Kenai sockeye killed every summer/Craig Medred photo 

News commentary

All Alaskans should be embarrassed by what we have allowed to become of the salmon of Cook Inlet. Suffice to say, this is our Columbia River disaster.

All that is missing are the dams. Aside from that, we’ve engaged in the same sort of dominant-stock salmon management that helped make the Columbia’s dam problem into a damn disaster. 

Consider what scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote in proposing an endangered species act recovery plan to save salmon stocks on the verge of extinction in the Snake River, an upstream tributary to the Columbia:

“The decline of the Idaho populations has been attributed primarily to juvenile and adult mortality from passage through the eight major mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams, widespread habitat degradation, over-exploitation of mixed-stock fisheries, and the effects of hatcheries.”

With the latter observations highlighted above, they could just as well be writing about the Susitna River, our tributary to the Inlet.

We might lack the dams, and we’ve largely avoided the widespread habitat degradation, but we’ve nailed the “over-exploitation of mixed-stock fisheries and the effects of hatcheries.”

In the case of Cook Inlet, of course, we don’t have actual hatcheries. We have two hatcheries in all but name: the hatchery-spawned Kasilof River sockeye salmon fishery and the man-boosted Kenai River sockeye salmon fishery. A little aquaculture and a lot of state management has turned these two systems into salmon-producing dynamos.

Rivers that used to be a part of an ecological system that produced a commercial harvest of 1.3 million salmon per year have become the drivers for a commercial fishery that now expects a  harvest of 3 or 4 million sockeye per year.

“In 2015, the total  (sockeye) run was 3.9 million to the Kenai River; 1,168,000 to the Kasilof River; 435,000 to the Susitna River; and 120,000 to Fish Creek,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports.

Do the math: 90 percent of the sockeye now in the Inlet come from the Kenai and Kasilof. That would be nothing but a plus if not for one huge environmental problem. The management of the entire Inlet now revolves around maintaining a high harvest on those Kenai-Kasilof fish.

The result is over-exploitation of nearly every other salmon stock in the Inlet. There are dozens of these, possibly hundreds.

But the coho salmon of northern Cook Inlet drainages might be the most over-exploited. There are now fewer coho returning there than there were in the 1970s when salmon runs all across Alaska were in serious trouble.

How did we get here?

“Modern salmon hatcheries in Alaska were established in five regions of the state in the 1970s, when wild runs of salmon were at record low levels,” NOAA scientists William Smoker and William Heard have observed.  The Kasilof River sockeye run of today traces its history back to that hatchery program.

Kasilof salmon escapements – the counts of fish escaping fishermen to get to the spawning grounds – were boosted from 50,000 to 150,000 per year in the 1970s to 2- to 10-times that in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Kasilof escapement hit almost 600,000 in 2004 despite heavy commercial fishing designed to stem the tide. Commercial fishermen caught more than 1 million Kasilof sockeye that year. 

What was happening upstream of the Kasilof fishery in Tustumena Lake to create this commercial fishing bonanza could not go unnoticed. The state and a private fishermen’s group, the Cook Inlet  Aquaculture Association, had turned Tustumena into one, big, salmon factory.

The Wilderness Society sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop it, arguing that the Wilderness Act prohibited turning wild lakes into giant salmon farms.

“A group of commercial fishermen (had) joined together and took over a salmon-stocking project once used to study fish stocks in the wild, and proceeded to turn research into a commercial activity,” observed the National Sea Grant Law Center. “For years, the number of fish returning to the ocean remained unnaturally high providing an adequate harvest for regional fishermen because researchers were collecting the eggs of returning salmon, hatching the eggs in captivity and releasing half-grown salmon back into the wild. This was a fairly well designed project except for one detail – the development of the salmon to adulthood required the resources of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.”

The federal courts eventually ruled that the Tustumena Lake project was a commercial operation being run illegally in a federal wilderness area and put an end to the stocking. But ever since high-production was jump started by hatchery enhancement, state fishery managers have been able to maintain big runs to the Kasilof.

Meanwhile, aided by some sockeye stocking in Hidden Lake, a tributary to the Kenai, and slow but steady boosts in Kenai sockeye escapements over the years, the state essentially turned the Kenai into another commercial salmon operation. The results have been predictable.

Out in the Inlet, other salmon stocks now pay the price for this sort of dominant stock management.

Scientifically embarrassing

Here is how Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Pat Sheilds described one of the weaker stocks of salmon – those northern Inlet coho – in a report to the state Board of Fisheries this year.

“When coho salmon runs are viewed over a long period of time in Northern Cook Inlet, there are no significant concerns about the sustainability of these stocks.”

This is as true as it is disingenuous. Over a long period of time, many salmon stocks can be sustained at low levels of abundance, which is where Susitna coho stocks are now. The Kenai River sockeye run, for instance, could easily be reduced to half the size of what it is and sustained at that level.

And this is nearly what has happened with northern coho in the historical sense.

The commercial catch of coho in Cook Inlet from 1966 to 2015 averaged 145,926 fish, according to Fish and Game figures. The 10-year-average catch for 2006-2015 stands at 99,963. 

That’s a 42 percent decrease in the number of coho salmon caught, and it’s not because northern coho escapements have increased or northern anglers are catching more of the fish they usually call silvers.

They’re not.

The reality is that the limited data available indicates both escapements and catch are down significantly. The state does a poor job of monitoring these fish (maybe biologists just don’t want to know), but they do have a couple key index streams: the Deshka River, a tributary to the mainstem Susitna, and the Little Susitna River, a stream east of the Su that drains into Knik Arm.

The Little Su has a coho escapement goal of 10,100 to 17,700 fish. Fifty percent of the time in the past decade it has missed the minimum goal. Seventy percent of the time it has failed to reach the midpoint of the goal.

It has twice exceeded the goal. The state’s most productive salmon runs – sockeyes in Bristol Bay – regularly exceeded their escapement goals.  And the Bay fisheries don’t have major sport fisheries catching spawners upstream from where the count is taken, as is the case on the Little Su.

The Little Susitna is clearly not managed to place it among Alaska’s most productive salmon runs.

The same is true for the Deshka, one of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley’s most popular streams with silver salmon anglers. The Deshka has a recommend coho escapement goal of 10,200 to 24,100 salmon.

The goal has been missed 30 percent of the time in the past decade. Sixty percent of the time, it was missed or just barely met, squeaking over the minimum by 193, 575 and 375 fish respectively. It has gone over the upper limit once. It has been under the midpoint for the range 90 percent of the time.

Blame anglers?

One could try to blame sport fishermen for these streams failing to meet escapement goals. The Little Su and the Deshka are, after all, two of the most popular sport fishing streams in the state.

Sport catches of coho, however, have been going down, not up. A regional catch that used to average about 127,000 fish per year is now down to around 100,000. A Susitna drainage catch that averaged about 36,000 from 2006 to 2010 is down to a 24,000 fish average from 2011 to 2015. 

Mat-Su government officials and people with sport-fishing related businesses this week complained to the Board of Fisheries about the decline in the coho fishery. The board seemed not to be listening. New board appointee Robert Ruffner of Kenai, a man with a strong background in conservation biology, seemed  more concerned about preventing “over-escapement” of sockeye into the Kenai River.

Saving the Kenai from “over-escapement” has become the preferred excuse for mismanaging other salmon runs in Cook Inlet and ignoring an Alaska Constitutional mandate to manage all fisheries for maximum sustained yield.The Constituion says this:

“The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the state, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of the people….Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belong to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.”

The Little Susitna is clearly not being managed for maximum anything, but that’s not how Sheilds put it to the Fish Board.

“The Little Susitna River coho salmon escapement goal was first established in 1990,” he wrote in his report, “and since that time (27 years), the escapement goal has been met or exceeded 21 years, or 78% of the time.”

At best the summary is horribly misleading. The goal has been exceeded six times in 27 years, according to Fish and Game data. That is 22 percent, not 78 percent. Worse than that, though, the 27-year time span badly misrepresents the current situation.

Five of the six times the goal has been missed have come in the past decade after years of dominant-stock management pressuring runs downward. And these shortages have come despite increasing restrictions on anglers to try to limit an already sharply limited sport harvest of the fish.

State fisheries biologists and commercial fishermen spend a lot of time debating MSY management in the Inlet. MSY, in fisheries jargon, is the acronym for “multiple sustained yeild.” Someone needs to create a new acronym for northern Cook Inlet coho.

Maybe mSY for “minimum-sustained yield,” which would seem to best fit the situation today.

Fix the problem

Alaska used to be a world leader in salmon management. That is no longer the case. Where other states and countries are trying to minimize mixed stock fisheries and replace them with cleaner and more discrete terminal fisheries, the state of Alaska goes on pounding away at mixed stocks in the Inlet.

“Fisheries on mixed-stocks pose particular difficulties for management, since rational management of these fisheries requires knowledge of the stocks that contribute to the fishery and their status, and that management actions should aim to protect the weakest of the contributing stocks,” the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) has concluded. 

Not only is the state of Alaska today doing little to “protect the weakest of the contributing stocks,” it is in many cases clueless as to which stocks those might be. Despite the obvious decline in coho salmon in the Susitna drainage, Fish and Game has done nothing to increase its knowledge of stocks there.

It has, instead, spent considerable time worrying about a possible Kenai over-escapement “problem,” which is the problem most easily fixed in a sound, scientific manner. The Fish Board this week gave no consideration to doing that.

Instead, it reduced the upper end of the Kenai sockeye escapement goal  from 1.4 million to 1.2 million to avoid the over-escapement bogeyman.

That is not a sound, scientific solution. This is what the NASCO would describe as simple mismanagement.

Weak stocks – be they late-run Kenai Chinook (king salmon) and sockeye and coho stocks all over Cook Inlet – will pay part of the price for the move, which simply cannot be justified on conservation grounds. Ironically, it was Ruffner, the supposed conservationist, who led the push for the reduction in the Kenai goal.

The change wasn’t about conservation. It was about putting money in the pockets of a special interest group – Kenai-based commercial fishing industry – at the expense of commercial fishermen in northern Cook Inlet, anglers and sport-fishing businesses in the Mat-Su, and – worst of all, far worst of all – the resource itself.

The lower the goal for Kenai sockeye, the more sockeye – and coho and kings – go into the nets of Kenai interests. And the more they catch, the more money they make.

If this was about Kenai sockeye conservation, a conservation solution would have been proposed. There are any number of new, clean commercial fisheries that could be created to backstop the existing commercial fisheries if more sockeye return to the Kenai than are desired.

There is no state prohibition against creating new fisheries. The Legislature maintains the authority to establish a commercial fishwheel fishery or dipnet fishery or maybe even an in-river seine fishery in the Kenai.

It might even have the latitude to avoid the Limited Entry Law, which created a cartel for commercial fishermen, and establish such fisheries on long-term leases with a better return to the state than it gets on the existing commercial fisheries which don’t even yield enough tax revenue to cover the cost of their management.

The precedent for this sort of thing was set when the state allowed the aquaculture associations controlled by commercial fishermen to conduct “cost recovery” fisheries. With the management of Cook Inlet being driven by a Kenai River run like a big salmon hatchery, there’s no reason some sort of cost recovery program couldn’t be extended to that river.

The state could probably even recover the costs for the program it needs to scientifically manage Cook Inlet salmon. That program would include increased monitoring of the many Inlet coho returns now in trouble and a lot more study of Yentna River sockeye salmon, an official state “stock of concern.”

Yetna sockeye comprise yet another of those salmon stocks caught in the Inlet’s big mixed-stock mess. Nobody is sure why the sockeye systems of the Susitna aren’t better producers. Commercial fishermen want to blame northern pike or rainbow trout predation, but it could simply be that the Yentna’s biggest problem is that too many Yentna fish are getting killed on their way to the spawning grounds.

That’s historically been the most common explanation when fish fail to show up as expected. But don’t tell the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Many members seem to be under the delusion that the way to save the salmon is to kill more of them.














12 replies »

  1. The question I have is this; why is the PU dip net closed on 31 July and the Comercial fishery is open till 15 August? The answer I get is we catch Coho’s. I say if we get one in our net I can let it go immediately and unharmed. The Comercial guys will kill it with their nets. Anyone see special interest here?

    I keep hearing about pike is the problem in Mat Valley streams. When I put in proposals to net them out at my time and expense I get oh no that would kill stickleback or other trout and bourbut. I say in my area there are no other fish but pike left. When I catch a pike it only has other pike in its stomach. The department refuses to do anything and I can’t do anything but use a pole. The department says there’s not a market for pike so no netting BUT if a market is found and commercial fishing could be done then they might look at doing something about pike problem.

    Alaska Sports Fishing Association is looking into a pike fishing derby. Not sure if it will be this summer or next.

    Lastly I say it’s time for all sport and put fisherman to come together and go to the BOF Meeting to tell them they are wrong and not giving us a reasonable opportunity.

    Thank you

    • Neil: the argument the department makes on the PU fishery is that not all dipnetters can identify a coho and thus catch and release is not realistic. the pike issue is hard to quantify. pike do well where there is good pike habitat. they do not do well where there is bad pike habitat. Bristol Bay has a lot of pike, too. pike and the salmon there appear to have reached an equilibrium. there is no doubt the valley has lost some salmon-rearing habitat to pike. Alexander Creek is never going to be the salmon fishery it once was. but to make that a reason to fail to meet coho escapements on the Little Susitna in five of the last 10 years is just nonsense.

  2. The board is putting the greed of a small group of users ahead of the health of the stock and a much larger group of users. Why? Because they are partakers of that greed. The myth of over escapement owes its existence to the old adage that if you tell a lie often enough, people will start to believe it. A simple observance of the real world reveals that it can’t possibly be true. Yet it has been used to justify the mismanagement of Alaska’s salmon stock for years now. Thanks to greed and misinformation, Alaska’s salmon are being mismanaged into serious decline.

  3. Matsu Coho Stocks are in serious trouble. I just heard the Board Chair publicly claim opportunity is not being denied in the Northern District sport fishery. Reasonable opportunity to catch and harvest Coho is not occurring. I just heard the Department publicly admit they do not manage for Coho. Seriously! Matsu Coho are very important to Alaskans, our community, bussinesses and river ecosystems. I guide over 115 days / year in the Matsu Valley. Last year I recorded more Kings than Coho in my log book. The parking lot at the Little Susitna Public Use facility was empty August 7 in 2016- historically one of the busiest days on the river. Public participation is spiralling down. Local businesses are suffering. This is a precious a precious resource that is not being managed for long term sustained yield. I am disgusted with what is happening with to Matsu fisheries.

    Pike are not the issue in most Valley streams–simply because they are not present. Specifically the Talkeetna River, East Side Susitna streams, & Chulitna River drainage — are prime examples of watersheds not affected by Pike.

  4. Ten years ago anglers routinely pulled 40-50 lb Chinooks out of the Susitna Valley tributaries and the Cohos flooded the creeks. These days the fishing is so bad, its hardly worth the effort. It is very unfortunate this decline is not a higher priority for the fishery “conservationists.”

    Then there is the Chugach Electric approach: since the fish stocks are already dwindling, why not just build another dam?

  5. Perhaps it is time for a lawsuit or series of lawsuits challenging 5 AAC 21.360. Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan which says in part: (a) The department shall manage the Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon stocks primarily for commercial uses based on abundance.

    Sure does appear that 5 AAC is in conflict with the state constitution you quoted above: “The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the state, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of the people….”

    Maximum benefit of 1,100 commercial permit holders is hardly maximum benefit of the people.

    Alaskans file lawsuits at the drop of a hat for every single resource development / infrastructure project before, during and after, most of them in the name of harm to salmon. Yet we have a small group supported by BOF raping salmon returns in Cook Inlet and nobody says or does squat. Why is that? Cheers –

  6. One more thing,, the over escapement is a huge hoax.
    The new fish counters are way more accurate than the old counters were. The 1.4 multiplier is way lower than it needs to be to represent the amount of fish that used to escape. The net result is we have been getting fewer fish escaping into the river ever since the new counters when in.

  7. Craig,

    Well done. I have always been suspicious of over-escapement as a “problem.” If it was a problem, how did the salmon survive over the 10s of thousands of years when the only harvest was by critters and a relatively small number of indigenous people?

    I also appreciate you pointing out that commercial fishing does not cover the costs that the state incurs in managing it. They are the only industry that attacks all the other resource based industries (tourism, oil, timber, mining). If commercial fishers want to put themselves in front of everyone else when it comes to creating an economy for Alaska, then they should step up and fill a significant amount of the budget gap left by the decline in oil production.


  8. Love the analysis, Craig. I’m sure that you’re not gaining any friends in the commercial fishing world, however, the problems that you’ve identified (probable over-fishing of ‘untargeted’ stocks, lack of taxes coming in from the commercial fisheries and the impacts the commercial fleet has on upstream businesses to name a few…) are sure stirring up conversations in the upper inlet. Keep up the pressure – hopefully others will start contacting their Senators and House Reps as well as voicing their concerns about our salmon to the fisheries board. Maximum benefit indeed. Keep up the good work, sir!

    • sadly, i can’t help myself. i was trained in the ecological sciences. i’ve watched the evolution of fisheries and wildlife management for more than 40 years now. i’ve had and still have a lot of friends and acquaintances involved in those disciplines in Alaska. we stopped being a leader some time back, but what has happened at the Board of Fisheries this week is a march back to the 1970s when the harvest of today was put ahead of the conservation of tomorrow. sad thing to see. i was in Southeast Alaska at a time when some biologists literally risked their lives to change that thinking and put the conservation of future stocks ahead of the harvest needed to pay the bills this year.

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