Suffering Little Su


An Alaska Chinook (king) salmon/Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo


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.

Anglers lost a July 1-3 fishery opening and the rest of the Chinook season on June 29 with only 1,240 salmon past the Little Su weirbut the return finally reached it’s lower threshold on Sunday.

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.











26 replies »

  1. craig you are wrong about habitat loss. simply take a look at the Moose range at the end of Wendt road than try to justify that statement. 30 years ago there was always Kings in wasilla creek and spawning in the range. What haas changed is development around the area and usage of the area. off road vehicles are destroying habitat. Than you have Rod Arno and the Outdoor council raffling off a 4 wheeler at the fair every year. The great alaska outdoorsman.

  2. A bowl of rice is put on the supper table of a boarding house. By the time it reaches the far end of the supper table it is noticeably void. The information Mr. Vania has provided is “gold”. So I do not get raped for talking in generalities, has the same DNA research been done in the “central district” “southern”? The bowl of rice/fish go through the gauntlet well before NCI, I know, I know, duh!! Point is, same analysis to be done in central district. All this serves to in some ways detering issues faced well back into 70-80s and forward. Generalities do not work. Put forth necessary research in central district. Put the overall management of Cook Inlet under one entity of management so the resource recruitment in stream is not previously biased by a particular user management, just for this purpose, salmon. This may involve a restructuring of ADFG. The Board of Fish battle still appears to be an archaic carry over of the “good old days”. That is questionably adequate business as usual with “resource demands” and the “technology available” to put it all out on the table. The FG Board is not adequate in looking at the “big picture” and ADFG management needs to come under “one umbrella”, all users need to be apprised of how “crucial” returns are thusly avoiding the “get mine while the gettin’ is good”.

  3. Damn shame. Commercial fishing is the bane of all fishieries east coast, west coast. To bad the consuming public isn’t involved more.

  4. They cannot delineate the genetics of Ship Creek hatchery kings from Little Su kings? Is this because the hatchery is based on kings with Little Su genetics, which could be having a major impact on the natural stocks that no one really understands?

    The management problem is clearly that the commercial fisheries are being given priority over ALL other user groups, and it’s totally bullshit. Just about every king run in the Mat-Su should be listed as a stock of concern; the fishery is being mismanaged to the brink of collapse.

    • Well Laura, you’ve made several unconnected statements here without any back-up.
      Of course you are entitled to your opinion but, if you want to be taken seriously, I suggest you back up your statements.

      • Well Bill, the first part of my comment was a question to which I do not know the answer and the rest seems pretty straight forward…the commercial fisheries consistently remain open or somewhat limited while the sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries are shut down or severly restricted.

        By my own experience, there used to be numerous large kings harvested in the Mat-Su tributaries and, in the limited timeframe that fishing for them is allowed, those fish are simply not being caught anymore. What happened to the fish?

        And while preserving the species should be the primary concern, it is also worth preserving the economic activity that accompanies a thriving sport fishery. In terms of pure dollar value per fish caught, the fishing tourists contribute more money to the overall economy than the commercial fleet. Yet the State of Alaska acts as a communist bank to the commercial industry – financing their boats, permits, etc. – and they have numerous incentives to keep them in business. It would appear we can’t have it both ways, and the real losers (besides the fish) amount to almost everyone upstream of the nets.

      • Just my opinion here Laura but I suspect much of the loss of large kings is two-fold: First is habitat loss due to severe development around those rivers and second the allowing of sport fishermen to target those large kings while on their nests. Even if these fish are released (after the photos) its my guess that few of them go on to successfully spawn. This is less of a problem in high water years as the fish are not as visible. And this is a legal activity, too, so while it my opinion it should be stopped, nobody is really breaking the law here.
        As far as commercial fisheries remaining open (somewhat) those are the first crack at the fish and without those fisheries remaining open the Department wouldn’t know what is out there. While some rivers may only have fish that sportsmen target, many have huge numbers of chum and pink salmon that must be harvested to protect the fishery.
        I’m not sure what your alluding to the value of sport fish vs. commercial fish but as far as I know this has no bearing on F & G or the Board of Fish thinking.
        Your thinking seems to assume that the Board and Department is doing nothing for these fisheries. There are many of Alaska’s rivers that are struggling with their king salmon returns and much is being done to determine the cause IMO. Appears the problem for most is open ocean losses but some of these rivers have shown poor spawning returns.

      • Bill: the habitat loss in these systems is minimal at worst. the real problem, simply put, is that our commercial fisheries are archaic.

      • You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, Craig but our commercial fisheries are the best in the world. I’ll admit that, going forward, we may not get the kinds of research required to maintain what we’ve become accustomed to.
        I’ve listened your bullshit about commercial fisheries for going on 30 years and for whatever reason you just don’t get it.
        You may be right about the habitat losses for these fisheries but the Little Su would probably have some problems.
        The catch and release sport fishing is what’s archaic.

      • Bill, in most of the Su Valley tributaries salmon fishing is prohibited upstream of the Parks Hwy to protect sensitive spawning areas, and the vast majority of anglers fish near the mouths of these streams. In the Deshka and Talachulitna Rivers, where spawning beds do see more frequent boat traffic, the runs are generally in better shape.

        There may be some issues with loss of habitat due to pollution, flooding and erosion but there isn’t a whole lot of “severe development” going on up here. And I don’t think Fish Board and F&G are doing nothing, they are clearly doing a lot to cater to the special interests of the commercial fleet.

      • A couple of things Laura-are there no fishing (or no keeping of salmon) above the Parks Hwy???
        As far as your feeling that Fish Board and F & G only cater to commercial interests, it apparent that you’ve never attended a B of Fish meeting. I’ll give you my take on this catering to commercial interests when the Copper River management was instructed to provide for increased dipnet sockeyes-this was done several times while I was gillnetting (and paying attention). This same thing was done on the Kenai River and got Roland Maw to propose the personal use limit be reduced from 25 reds to 15. Don’t know if you followed this, but his proposal went nowhere.
        The ball is in your court to show where B of Fish only allocates towards commercial interests.

      • I see the wording but am still unsure that it would prohibit catching and releasing king salmon. Obviously, if the intent were to completely prohibit the catching of king salmon then it would also prohibit the fishing for salmon-however, should one be hooked unintentionally it would be proper to release it, right. It’s possible that this is not an issue for these rivers but I know its a yuge deal on the upper Copper tributaries.
        Your proof is only in your mind! Fishing has always been just that (fishing) but to many it becomes “catching” and that doesn’t always work out so well. Charter fisheries have ruined a lot of good salmon fisheries (just because they are so efficient) but to only be able to go back to the good old days, right. Try to enjoy the 450 mile trip through such great country and hopefully get a king.

      • you haven’t been keeping up, Bill. we were the best. in a lot of places, fishery managers have gotten better at discreet stock management. we have in some, but not a lot of others. in Cook Inlet, for much of the summer, we’re still managing primarily for sockeye salmon and whatever happens to the by-catch species, oh well. there are lots of better ways to do this, but we locked ourselves into old systems with limited entry. trying to stop evolution is a mistake. it’s already cost the state hundreds of millions, if not billions, on its salmon resource. if oil were managed like salmon, there would be outrage so bad you would feel it shaking the Capitol. and the only thing i “don’t get,” Bill, is why we as a state somehow seem willing to ignore the full value we could get out of our fisheries. and i’ve thought that since i was editing the UFA newspaper more than 30 years ago. our harvest schemes are archaic, inefficient and limited. i’m not opposed to the commercial harvest of Northern Cook Inlet Chinook. we should be harvesting a lot more. they’re valuable. the problem is we have an indiscriminate harvest system that messes up another valuable economic engine – the sport fishery – and fails to maximize the commercial value. it’s a friggin’ lose-lose. archaic is actually too kind of a word.

      • You’ve said a mouthful Craig but have backed it up with nothing but your opinion. There is nothing written in stone, or anywhere else, that says we must “maximize commercial value.” Folks have been bitching for years about a sport caught fish is worth so much more than one caught commercially-this has always just been a ruse to wrest away some fish the sportsman wants to catch. You call this archaic but this whole limited entry system has been in place for less than 50 years, when the entire salmon fisheries were in poor shape, and just look as what has taken place.
        You say we aren’t keeping up-who do we need to look up to??? For whatever reason you have a chip on your shoulder over our commercial fishing! Usually its the haves vs. the have nots but things have calmed a bit since the original folks got their permits given to them (some sold theirs thinking the courts would throw limited entry out). Since you’ve been bitching about commercial fishing for over 30 years (that I know of) could it be that someone you knew sold theirs out and influenced you?
        We clearly have a king salmon problem but its not with commercial fishing. Something is killing them in the ocean and has been for 10 plus years-until this problem gets solved, none of these king fisheries are going to run super smoothly. Take a few king fisheries that have other problems (like some Cook Inlet rivers) and things get dicey. Hardly a reason to throw out, what I believe is the best managed salmon fisheries in the world. You don’t agree, tough noogies!

      • Obviously, you and I will just have to disagree on this topic Craig.
        The idea of changing the limited entry law has been voiced before and while I don’t remember the date I do remember the Senator who did bring the subject up-it was Bill Ray (democrat from Juneau) who has been gone for years. As I remember the context of the situation, the commercial fleet was objecting to increased sockeyes for personal and subsistence use. I’m paraphrasing here but Bill Ray mentioned that the legislature created limited entry and could revisit it at any time it appeared to be not working. This ended any serious effort to block a “reasonable” number of reds for use by Alaskans. Jerry McCune recognized Ray’s threat as something too big to be fooled with and I’ve not heard of anything similar coming up in the years, since.
        This is politics, of course, and fish politics tends to be “hardball.” If, as you say, our salmon fisheries have outlived their time I suspect there to be a big political push to change them-My opinion is don’t hold your breath. We’ll see!

      • bill, you’re entitled to believe anything you want to believe, and i support your right to do so. but the facts here are simple. the best-managed fisheries target salmon stocks discretely not randomly. that’s not an opinion; that’s a simple reality. the Susitna River drainage has under-harvested Chinook stocks and over-harvested stocks. we’re stuck with that because of the mixed-stock nature of the commercial fishery. none of that is opinion. ask any fisheries biologist. the inability to focus harvest on strong stocks and protect weak stocks is the Achilles heal of mixed-stock fisheries. i admit i may be prejudiced here. i was trained primarily as a scientist and thus i inherently favor knowledge over ignorance. i think that’s a good prejudice. so i’m going to go with it. now, as to your assertion that there is “nothing written in stone, or anywhere else, that says we must ‘maximize commercial value,'” you’re right. but there is this written in the Alaska Constitution: “It is the policy of the State to encourage…development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.” under-utilized salmon stocks under-utilized because of harvest regulations would, in my opinion, fail the standard of “making them available for maximum use.” unfortunately, state fishery managers are forced to leave some stocks under-utilized to prevent other stocks being over-utilized and thus violating a section of the constitution which says that “fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle.” the state needs better commercial harvest tools, but we’re not going to get them for political reasons which your reference to Bill Ray (i miss that cranky old guy) clearly shows. and the state, for reasons i’ve never understood, fails to fully utilize hook-and-line harvest tools in the sport fisheries. why we require Kenai River tourists to release foul-hooked sockeye salmon in years when commercial fishermen are worried about over-escapement of sockeye in the Kenai baffles me. limit the entire river to fly-fishing only to keep it from turning into some sort of socially ugly treble-hook with lead snag fishery, but then require people to keep any sockeye they hook. and in years of big runs, if someone is really worried about over-escapement, up the limit to 10 fish per day. despite what you want to believe, the state gets a significantly bigger economic bang out of fish visibly flown home in coolers than fish shipped to China by the container load to be processed and shipped to the U.S. you can go Google up the studies from all over the country on the higher value of sport fisheries versus commercial fisheries. again, it isn’t something of opinion. it is a simple issue of efficiency. to catch one fish, a visiting to sport fisherman has to spend a lot of money. to catch one fish, a visiting commercial fisherman (of whom there are many in our most valuable fisheries) have to spend very little.

      • “the Susitna River drainage has under-harvested Chinook stocks and over-harvested stocks.”
        Frankly, I’m unsure what you are saying here?
        Mixed stock fisheries have been dealt with ever since limited entry with the most controversial being the SE troll fishery, but this probably was forced on us by the interception of Columbia River king salmon that otherwise would have produced an increased push to remove some Columbia River Dams.
        For the most part, our salmon fisheries tend to terminal harvest areas but for various reasons not all. I suspect these mixed stock fisheries will tend to suffer more, in the future, due to our budget problems.
        That “maximizing commercial value” gets into some real issues when subsistence is taken account of!

  5. “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, but the data has never been made public.”

    -The data was presented at the 2017 UCI Board of Fish meeting in a memo to the board and within an oral presentation.

    • thanks, Tom. i obviously asked the wrong person. the story has been updated to reflect the Litte Su has now also met escapement and to include some data from this story and a link to the whole thing, which is interesting. if you see anything else, let me know. i appreciate the professional oversight.

    • thanks, Tom. i obviously asked the wrong person. the story has been updated to reflect the Litte Su has now also met escapement and to include some data from this story and a link to the whole thing, which is interesting. if you see anything else, let me know. i appreciate the professional oversight.

      • So Tom why are you closing the Chitina PU on the 19th.? That is when the first decent numbers of fish ( in weeks of counts at miles lake) will be at the PU fishery in weeks. (considering the high water) Yet the commies stay right on schedule with 24hr. openers inside.

      • allen: I do not oversee management of the Chitina PU fishery, but looking at the emergency orders it doesn’t appear that it is being closed. So I’m not sure what you are talking about.

        From the news release: “The Copper River personal use fishery is managed under direction outlined in the Copper River Personal Use Dip Net Salmon Fishery Management Plan (5 AAC 77.591). The plan establishes the season from June 7 through September 30, and directs the department to establish weekly periods based on Miles Lake sonar counts.”

  6. so the Dept. and the BOF use the term “share the burden” does anyone have an interpretation or a definition of this term?

  7. Oh it’s political alright, the Mat-Su legislators know that. They all voted NOT to reconfirm John Jensen to the BOF last session.
    What is hard to figure is why Anchorage legislators with 10s of 1,000s of licensed sport fish constituents and much fewer actual comfish residents all voted YEA to confirm Jensen. Apparently the majority of Anchorage voters support the commercial salmon fishery in Cook Inlet not only over there own resident anglers but also the fish. That is certainly the way their representatives in Juneau have voted for the last ten years.

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