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.
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.
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.
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.