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.
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.
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.”