Update: This story has been updated and extensively rewrwitten to reflect the Little Susitna finally made escapement and to include information from a state genetics study of Chinook from Northern Cook Inlet.
Usually a busy stream in early July, the Little Susitna River ran quiet through the Matanuska-Susitna Borough over the weekend with fishing boats idle and state fisheries biologists, along with anglers, waiting for a weak return of Chinook salmon to creep over the minimum spawning goal of 2,100.
But by then what was once a productive, seven-day a week salmon fishery west of Wasilla was already down to a weekend-only fishery, and then it was no fishery.
That the spawning escapement was met after anglers were banned from the stream is unlikely to soothe the anger of fishing-related businesses and anglers in the Mat-Su, the 49th state’s second-largest population area.
Less than four months ago, they asked the state Board of Fisheries to close a commercial fishery for Chinook – or king salmon as Alaskans more often call the big fish – off the mouth of the Susitna and Little Su.
The board said no.
Board Chairman John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg in the state’s Panhandle, later observed that the 2017 Cook Inlet meeting of the board was largely about allocating “some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
Never mind that the deal struck in 1985 when the Northern Cook Inlet commercial Chinook fishery was reopened after having recovered from years of overfishing was that it would close if there were no kings to harvest above and beyond the sport catch.
“We’ll be the first to go if there are not enough fish,” Steve Braund, the spokesman for the Northern Cook Inlet Setnetters Association testified at the time. “We’re not just trying to get our foot in the door and grow.”
Thirty-one-years later, the foot had the door propped open so wide the Board wouldn’t even agree to close commercial fishing within a mile of the mouth of the Little Su, a protective measure common to most Alaska salmon streams with struggling runs.
A complicated picture
How many of the 2,000 kings this year harvested in Cook Inlet’s Northern District fishery, or in a Tyonek subsistence fishery that catches several thousand more, were bound for the Little Su no one knows. It’s possible none of the fish were headed there, and it is possible many of them were bound for that river.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been conducting genetic sampling of the fish since 2014 to try to determine which Susitna drainage Chinook get caught. The data, which is limited, has shown the catch to be hugely variable.
But it has also shown a good bit of the commercial harvest – a third to almost 60 percent – focuses on what the state calls the “Knik-Turnagain” stock. The Little Su generally comprises the biggest wild component of that run with only a small number of kings returning to the other streams in the group – Resurrection Creek and the Chickaloon River at the north end of the Kenai Peninsula, the Carmen River near Portage, Campbell Creek and Eagle River in Anchorage, Moose Creek east of Palmer, and a few other minor spawning systems.
This picture is, however, somewhat complicated by the return of a significant number of kings to Ship Creek, an artificially enhanced stream. The enhancement project has turned the urban stream into one of the most popular fisheries in the region.
Anglers there now catch an average of 3,100 kings per year, according to Fish and Game. Only about 750 of the fish are needed to escape fishermen to provide the necessary fish for hatchery production and about 250 fish for survival of the natural run.
The state’s genetic sampling program is not specific enough to delineate Ship Creek fish from Little Susitna fish. And the harvest of Knik-Turnagain stocks, which was almost 60 percent of the commercial harvest in 2015, was comprised of Ship Creek fish, the commercial harvest – while supported by the dollars that anglers pay for the Ship Creek hatchery operation – would likely have little effect on the Little Su return.
If, however, the harvest is focused on Little Su chinook, it could have big impacts there. Sixty percent of this year’s harvest would amount to 1,200 fish. That would have easily been enough to keep the Little Su sport fishery, the most accessible king salmon fishery in the valley, running through the end of the season.
Many small runs
The management problem with the northern Cook Inlet commercial fishery is that there are a lot of fish coming from many streams of limited production. They comprise a massive, mixed-stock of salmon which includes seven Chinook runs the state classifies as “species of concern,” not counting the Little Su. Chinook in the latter stream have struggled in recent years, but are not yet a species of concern.
Of the seven troubled runs, six are considered species of “management concern.” The state defines this as meaning “a concern arising from a chronic inability, despite
use of specific management measures, to maintain (spawning) escapements for a salmon stock within the bounds of the sustainable escapement goal, biological escapement goal or optimum escapement goal, or other specified management objectives
for the fishery; a management concern is not as severe as a conservation concern.”
Simply put, a stock of conservation concern is a salmon run suffering from over-fishing or a chronic reproductive failure, and a stock of management concern is one the state is trying to keep from becoming a stock of conservation concern by stopping over-fishing, the only thing humans can control.
The state has taken some actions to try to keep some of the Cook Inlet stocks of management concern from becoming stocks of conservation concern. Angling has been banned on the rivers with stocks of concerns, and commercial fishing closures have been ordered around the mouths of Theodore, Lewis and Chuitna rivers – all of which drain directly into Cook Inlet.
The state has also aggressively tried to remove northern pike from Alexander Creek, a tributary to the Susitna River where predation from the toothy piscivore and not from people has been shown to be the reason for Chinook declines.
Elsewhere the causes of the declines are harder to finger. Most of the stock-of-concern fish being killed by people are caught in the commercial fishery or the Tyonek subsistence fishery, as state fisheries biologists told the board in 2010. But those two fisheries don’t catch that many.
Mixed stock mess
Little has changed since the 2010 report. To be clear, there is no direct evidence the northern Inlet setnet fishery is responsible for the Chinook declines. Some biologist are of the belief it couldn’t be responsible; they argue the Susitna drainage as a whole gets a return of more than 100,000 Chinook and 2,000 fish is a tiny percentage of that number.
But the problem with mixed stock fisheries is that there is no way of telling exactly what fish are dying. Almost 40 years ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game started warning about the dangers of “large catches from…relatively weak stocks when intermingled with stronger stocks.”
Since then, the state has made efforts to move away from mixed-stock fisheries in favor of more selective harvests, but the shift has not been easy. Many of the state’s commercial fisheries from the Bering Sea east around the Gulf of Alaska all the way to the tip of the Southeast panhandle still focus on mixed stocks.
Ironically, the biologically least dangerous among these fisheries – the fisheries which harvest from the biggest and most diverse pool of mixed stocks – have come under the greatest fire.
Gulf of Alaska trawlers, who haul in a relatively small number of Chinook originating from all over Alaska, have repeatedly been attacked for their salmon by-catch in pursuit of pollock and other whitefish. The trawlers now operate under tight quotas.
And salmon trollers in Southeast Alaska, who catch Chinook bound for streams from the Panhandle south to northern California, have faced restrictions to protect runs far, far from Alaska. They this year saw their annual Chinook harvest reduced by 100,000 fish.
The action, Robert Woolsey at KCAW in Sitka reported, had “more to do with the politics of the management arrangement with Canada or the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Although Alaska’s wild stocks are in a down cycle, hatchery production coast wide is sufficient to support a larger harvest. But because some Chinook runs outside of Alaska are in trouble, treaty commissioners ratchet down the Chinook abundance index , which then draws down the harvest targets.”
As Woolsey notes, so much of the management of Alaska fisheries has to do with politics. That some fishermen win and some lose in this zero-sum game of resource allocation is inevitable and painful for the losers, but the real disaster is if the fish lose.
And around Cook Inlet, some of the fish appear to be losing.