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An Alaska Department of Fish and Game plan to increase the productivity of Chinook salmon by killing more fish before they can get into the Copper River has been vetoed by the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

Sequestered in snowy, rainy Valdez through the weekend and into this week, the Board decided early Tuesday that there are at this time just too many unknowns surrounding Copper River Chinook to go with a plan to cut escapement by about 25 percent.

“Escapement” is defined as the number of fish making it past a commercial fishery at the mouth of the river. After commercial fishermen take a bite out of the return – they caught 13,100 of an estimated  45,000 to 48,000 of the big fish this year –  in-river fishermen take thousands more.

For years, the goal of fishery managers has been to get at least 24,000 kings into the river, but given a steady decline in Chinook returns in recent year, biologists this year calculated that the ideal number of spawners would be 18,500, and suggested the Board lower the goal. 

Opposition erupted almost immediately. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which has for years fought to protect Chinook stocks in the state’s most famous “king salmon” river, ventured south from the Kenai to the big, muddy river near the Canadian border to warn that the state knows precious little about the salmon stocks of the Copper River basin.

Some 40 streams support runs of kings – the Alaska preferred term for Chinooks – in the 24,000-square-mile drainage. The state has spawning goals for none of those streams. About the only one about which it knows much is the Gulkana River, which supports the region’s most popular sport fishery, and Chinook numbers there have been in decline for years.

A rare agreement

The situation is such that sport, commercial, subsistence and personal use all agreed – among the rarest of occurrences in Alaska – that it is premature to reduce the in-river goal.

“I’ve been talking to the various user groups,” Fish Board Chairman John Jensen said during the Tuesday hearing. “There’s support for keeping the sustainable escapement goal at 24,000 on the bottom end.”

He then asked state fishery managers “if they’d be willing to agree on something like that.”

Some explanations are in order before their answer:

  • The Fish Board is the Alaska entity that establishes fisheries management policies. It approves seasons and limits, and methods and means for killing fish.
  • Fish and Game is the state agency charged with providing the science on which the Fish Board is to make its policy decisions.
  • Commercial fisheries are primarily net fisheries that allow people to catch and sell fish for profit.
  • Sport fisheries are basically rod-and-reel fisherman fishing for fun or the freezer.
  • And subsistence and personal-use fisheries are a confused mess unique to the 49th state.

Both of the latter are limited to Alaskans only.

A state law gives preference to “subsistence,” the traditional harvest of fish by Alaskans who want to feed themselves. Personal-use fisheries were created by the Board of Fish to mimic subsistence fisheries but without the preference.

Traditionally, fish wheels – contraptions that spin in the current of the river, sweep up salmon, and deposit them in a basket – have been the primary gear used by subsistence fishermen. But they have been moving toward the use of dipnets, the fishing technique of personal-use fishermen.

This already confusing situation between personal-use and subsistence only gets more so in the Copper Basin because there is both a state subsistence fishery, open to all Alaskans, and a federal subsistence fishery, open to rural Alaska residents only.

Rural residents as defined by the federal government comprise almost all Alaskans living outside of Fairbanks, the biggest city in Central Alaska, and the Anchorage metropolitan area, which is home to more than half the state’s population.

By and large, the city folk don’t qualify for the rural subsistence priority over other fishery users as mandated by the federal government. But then, too, the priority isn’t always a real priority.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 dictates that “the taking on public lands of fish and wildlife for nonwasteful subsistence uses shall be accorded priority over the taking on such lands of fish and wildlife for other purposes,” but it doesn’t always work out that way,  subsistence users on the Copper were this year put on Chinook limits so commercial fishermen off the mouth of the river could harvest as many Copper River kings as they could catch.

Copper kings just happen to be the most valuable salmon in Alaska.

It’s complicated

This is the minefield through which the Fish Board tries to swim.

Tom Brookover, the state director of Sport Fisheries and one of the key state officials involved in management, on Tuesday offered his reluctant willingness to go along with the Board’s latest suggestion Fish and Game gather more data on Copper River kings and come back in a few years with a complete management plan.

Commercial Fisheries Director Scott Kelley “and I will follow-up on the memos…and then they’re reported in a report,” Brookover told the Board.

He made a limp, last-minue plea for the new, lower, in-river goal but that was obviously going nowhere.

“We don’t want to not follow through with adopting those goals without good reason,” Brookover said. But he conceded the state has agency has deferred to the Board before.

“We have done it on occasion,”he said, but stressed it was important to keep the “process intact,” even if the Board has “heard, ah, public notice concerns.”

Fish and Game kept the new, lower, proposed escapement goal under wraps until just a couple of months before the Board meeting, which was set for Valdez. Valdez is an isolated community of about 4,000 on the edge of Prince William Sound. 

It is about 370 miles over snowy roads from Fairbanks, where most of the subsistence and personal-use fishermen live,  It is about 300 miles from the Anchorage to Valdez by highway.

Bad weather – first snow, then rain, then more snow – limited flights into Valdez through the weekend. Board members, Fish and Game staff, and the representatives of various interest groups ended up pretty much holed up in the city that is the terminus of the TransAlaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to tidewater.

How much influence that had on the decision to maintain the status quo and postpone consideration of Copper Chinook returns for three years is unclear, but Brookover said state bureaucrats would be ready to help the Board when the issue is revisited.

“There perhaps is something we can talk about in the process that would, that would, um, keep us from, you know, having the situation come up in the future,” he told the board. “So I think we’d be willing to entertainment (sic) that.”

 

 

 

 

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24 replies »

  1. A good start on the King salmon argument would be immediate and accurate accounting of all of the fish caught upriver. No one should argue about that if they truly want to “save” the Kings. Users should be required to immediately record the fish they have caught. The only accurate record of what is caught is by the commercials down river. This is done everywhere else in the US and it could be done in Alaska.

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    • Phil: users are already required to do this in all the state fisheries. there’s no way to enforce the seasonal limits on those fisheries without people being required to record their catch. i don’t know who would argue with it since they’re already doing it. and the state does end up with an accurate record. for some reason, however, it seems to take the state a long time to gather all the data.

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      • Are you saying “catch”, Craig as opposed to keeping. I find it incredulous that those catch (and release) fishermen are required to record their catch.
        Correct me if I’m wrong, here!

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  2. It is not correct to state;” subsistence is for rural residents only”. Under state law. All Alaskans are eligible to participate in subsistence. Intact there are many Alaskan who reside in urban areas an participate in the copper river subsitence fishery.
    Your statement does have marit if you were talking about “federal subsistence”, but this was a state BOF meeting.

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    • Al: i thought it was pretty clear as written, but i’m going to add this to make it doubly clear:

      Rural residents AS DEFINED BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT comprise almost all Alaskans living outside of Fairbanks, the biggest city in Central Alaska, and the Anchorage metropolitan area, which is home to more than half the state’s population.

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      • Craig , I am going to make it clear. When you are talking about the copper river subsistence fishery. There is really no advantage of being federally qualified. Unless you consider being able to start 15 days earlier (no amount fish in the river then) than state subsistence users. Furthermore, there are very few federal permits issued, because the state subsitence permits are easier to get and afford the same opportunities.
        Again I must point out this meeting you reported (very well I might add) was a State BOF. Not the federal subsistence board. There are differences and the correct diffinations and terms should be used when writing.

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      • Al: there is, at this time, no real advantage to being a federal permit holder. were the feds to flex their regulatory muscle, however, and actually mandate the legally required ANILCA priority, there could be a big advantage to being a federal permit holder.
        i didn’t get into all of that because it’s too involved for the average reader, and as we saw with the federal willingness to go along with a 2-king subsistence limit this year, the state and federal subsistence fisheries are essentially functioning as one fishery with no real priority.
        were there a true priority, we who would be heading toward a Kuskokwim River situation which has long been unfathomable to me in the sense that the state and federal governments have combined to take the most valuable resource on the Y-K Delta – king salmon – and allocate it all to the lowest-value use – subsistence. if nothing else, the “trade and barter” provisions of the federal law should be liberalized to let Y-K fishermen invest, for lack of a better word, some of those salmon in the equipment (boats, motors, gas, oil, guns, nets, etc.) they need to survive on the Delta.
        i would hope we would never get into such a situation the Copper, but given the way things go in this state, who knows….

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      • Al, your “making it clear” has given me some pause. It has been my understanding that the in-river federal subsistence fishery has been predominantly the fishwheel fishery that has its own requirements. I’m familiar with the Flats state sponsored subsistence fishery that is a gillnet fishery (one shackle, or 50 fathoms of gillnet) that takes place during regular openings on the Flats, or for a specific period should that regular opening be closed.
        It appears that you are referring to another state sponsored subsistence fishery that is conducted in-river and “easier to get and afford the same opportunities. Is this fishery done with fishwheels?

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      • Bill, the in river subsistence fishery is both state and federal. Both permits are very similar. The federal permit allows those to start fishing 15 days before the state subsistence fishery. Both subsistence fisheries allow fish wheels, dip nets, and rod and reel.
        The real differences between the two are. Availability of permits. The state’s is easier to get. The federal permit only allows “rural qualified”. The state’s subsistence permit allows any state resident to recieve a permit.
        Like I had stated early many Alaskans from Fairbanks, anchorage, and from the valley fish in this state subsistence opportunity.

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      • Thanks Al.
        I had known the federal fishwheel fishery was only allowed on one side of the bridge-is that the case for the state subsistence fishery (when using a fishwheel), as well? I haven’t participated in this in-river fishery in a long time but it seems like fishwheels could get hard to manage, without some restrictions IMO.

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      • Bill: the number of fish wheels is actually going down. i believe that was in the story. wheels are a lot of work to maintain and younger people don’t seem to have the time. the number of subsistence dipnetters, meanwhile, has sort of being going up in proportion to the fish wheel numbers going down.

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      • My understanding is as follows: State subsistence (at lease Glenallen Sub.) legal methods only include dipnet or fishwheel. Shorter season, but higher allowed limits – up to 500 salmon for a household of 2. That’s a lot of fish. I actually called to see if that was a typo. It’s not. Federal subsistence permits have a longer season but lower limits (60 for a household of 2), Fed rules allow the use of dipnet, fishwheel, AND rod and reel. Both fisheries have priority over everyone else. Both fisheries have no limit on the number of King Salmon that can comprise one’s bag limit if using a fish wheel, but both are limited to 5 King salmon for any other legal gear. Federally qualified subsistence users must reside in the subsistence or rural area, state users only have to be AK residents. Also, I’m pretty sure that this year when Commercial, PU, Sport, and State Subsistence users were restricted on Kings, those restrictions were not legally binding for federal subsistence users – merely a “request”. All users are required to report, but it’s acknowledged by many that reporting in some of these fisheries is not as strong as managers would hope. I may have missed something or misinterpreted but that’s how I read it.

        http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/fishing/pdfs/subsistence/glen-subdistrict-subsistence-salmon-regs.pdf

        https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/subsistence/regulation/fish_shell/upload/Prince.pdf

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      • Todd, my reading of regulations agrees with your interpretation and I agree that 500 salmon is a lot of fish. That appears to be based on some sort of additional permit requested (this is a first, for me).
        My own experience with these type of permits is that they change from year to year and one needs to keep up on their regulations. For example, an ocean gillnet permit for salmon in Southeast (outer coast) did allow for 50 salmon total in 2017 but that same fishery about 6 years ago allowed for 25 salmon/day. While the latest regulation seems to be a reduction, it also allows for 50 at one time where as the older regulation required the 25 to be processed before starting on the next 25. Without some sort of sophisticated fish camp located nearby, it was fairly prohibitive to be able to process those 25 fish without returning to place of residence (which was about 75 miles for me).

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      • Bill – it is an additional request, but I was told those requests are typically always granted. I believe that there were about 1200 Glenallen Subsistence permits issued, and average fishwheel harvest was about 70 fish.

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    • Bill
      Fishing above the bridge is all subsistence and sport fishing. The vast majority of subsistence fishing is done with fish wheels. By both rural and urban subsistence users under a state subsistence permit. Those who chose to fish below the bridge and above Haley creek. Are personal use and use a dip net. Those who want to fish below Haley creek are federal subsistence. I believe there may only be 1 wheel down that far.

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  3. The PWS finfish BOF mtg.(which includes CR proposals), usually alternates, every 3 year cycle with Cordova & Valdez. Over the years, a few have even been held in Anchorage. The BOF, emphasizes having their mtg, close to the participants of the fisheries. The Copper River is only a part of Area E, which includes all waters between Cape Suckling and Gore Pt. All the various fish users (charter, commercial, pu, sport and subsistence), come to PWS & the CR, from all over the State of Alaska.
    The current fish pundits, who write comments on a former ADN outdoor reporter’s blog, probably have never been in Valdez, in the first week of December. I have a number of times. The key here is, if you want to participate on a more, personal level, than sending comments and posting on blogs, you have to show up in person. Got that? Get involved and quit the whining, it is getting so old.
    Serious slap? Who are you kidding? You do not even plublish you name!

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  4. I heard that Governor Walker planted Bedbugs in the ADFG and BOF members’ hotel rooms because they refused to help him steal more Salmon from Alaskans. I also heard that he had the live meeting audio cut in an attempt to block Alaskans from listening. Lucky for us that Craigmedred.news was able stream the meeting live from RG’s cell phone! Anyone who cares about parasites or dependable meeting audio needs to vote Walker out!

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  5. This was a serious slap to the Commissioner, Com and Sports fish directors. The Dept had the authority to set SEGs. Not the Board of Fisheries. This would not have happened if the commercial fleets had not objected. The Dept staff and at least two BOF members have received their marching orders from the Governor. Thankfully the comm fishers understood how risky the Dept’s attempt to
    reduce escapement of Chinook was in the absence of reliable counts. Director Scott Kelly and Director Tom Brookover made serious misjudgments of the public’s view of their recommendations. When Walker is handed his hat next November, a new commissioner, com and sports Fish directors will also be shown the door.

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