The future?

A Columbia River salmon trap/Fisheries Research

More than 50 years after Alaska banned fish traps amid a popular belief they were man’s greatest threat to the survival of salmon, researchers studying salmon bycatch on the Columbia River have published a scientific paper declaring the exact opposite.

“…The findings of our research support the conclusions of prior studies and further suggest that passively operated fish traps may allow for selective harvesting of targeted fish stocks with little to no mortality of adult salmonid bycatch,” they reported in Fisheries Research, an online journal, earlier this month.

The researchers from the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and the Wild Fish Conservancy, an advocacy group, spent three years trapping Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon on the Columbia, tagging them and then tracking their survival as they made their way upstream toward spawning grounds.

Nearly all of the salmon caught and held in the in-river traps on the Columbia survived for the four to six days it took them to travel from the trap upriver to the Bonneville Dam after their release.

The results of the study, they said, “suggest that recently developed commercial fish trapping techniques can allow for selective harvesting of hatchery-produced fish (and other abundant fish runs) while achieving nearly 100 percent post-release survival of Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed adult salmonids.”

Some limitations

They admitted that the sample size for the study was small, but added that “the fact that 88 of 88 of the passive integrated transponder (PIT)-tagged sample that had been assigned to upper-basin populations were detected at Bonneville Dam in the absence of a control group is highly persuasive and corroborates the findings of prior studies for passively operated fish traps that estimated survival at” 100 percent.

PIT tags are injected into the fish and eliminate subsequent handling. The tags can be electronically detected and recorded as fish pass through tracking arrays. 

Commercial fishery bycatch of endangered wild salmon has become a major issue on the Columbia in modern times as has the commercial bycatch of struggling king salmon in commercial nets off the mouth of Alaska’s Kenai River.

The Wild Fish Conservancy was heralding the results of the latest research as a game changer.

“The new publication provides the most clear-cut and irrefutable evidence to date that fish traps can nearly eliminate unintended mortality of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead during harvest, allowing for sustainable and resilient commercial fisheries that can be enjoyed for generations to come,”  Emma Helverson, the group’s executive director proclaimed on the Conservancy’s website. “It is rare to find a win-win solution with such widespread benefits for wild fish, orcas (killer whales), resource managers, and coastal fishing communities.”

Commercial fishermen were not racing to embrace the idea.

Though commercial fish traps were banned in Alaska amid claims they had destroyed the territory’s salmon runs and were a threat to salmon survival in the fledgling state, the real issue was with money and control.

Fiercely independent commercial fishermen who caught salmon with nets didn’t like the efficiency of the traps or the fact many were controlled by Seattle-based businesses.

Damn Outsiders

“The concentration of trap ownership in the hands of a handful of nonresident corporations was particularly galling,” Alaska economist Steve Colt more than 20 years ago wrote in a history of the traps. 

Therein he quoted the 1960 observation of the late economist George Rogers that “the traps have long been the principal bete noire of Alaskan political demonology. The anti-trap case has been emotionally distorted to the point where even Alaskans who have never seen one would readily brand them as “fish killers” and look upon them as the very embodiment of evil in this world….

The traps were a key rallying point in the call for Alaska Statehood. Territorial residents were confident that if the traps were banned they could rest control of the salmon fishery from Outside interests.

That never happened. The industry is still controlled by Outside interests.

“Of the 6.4 billion pounds of seafood harvested in Alaska in 2017, the United Fishermen of Alaska’s 2018 Alaska Commercial Fishing and Seafood Processing report listed 4.6 billion pounds – almost two-thirds – harvested by permit holders from Washington, Oregon or California.

The numbers haven’t changed much since then, but the UFA has become more discrete in talking about them as the ownership of fishing rights through so-called “limited entry” permits has become increasingly controversial.

The transformation in the industry, especially in rural Alaska, has become so obvious it has finally caught the idea of the state’s publicly funded media, which is wondering why local residents of Bristol Bay haven’t benefitted from the global-warming bounty of salmon now showing up there. 

The fundamental problem Alaska has faced since territorial days is that a considerable number of people who can afford to spend their time elsewhere during the state’s long, dark winters spend their time elsewhere.

The Anchorage Metropolitan Area, with most of the comforts of major cities, has been the one obvious instate beneficiary of the shift. It is now home to more than half the state’s population. The winters might be just as long and dark there as in the fishing port of Dillingham in far Western Alaska, but they seem less so when you can entertain yourself with the distractions of urban life.

All of which has factored into the evolution of the state’s fisheries.

New alignments

Commercial fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage now see the weekend warriors who each summer flood there to dipnet salmon to fill their freezers or chase the fish with rod and reel for sport as a bigger threat to their pocketbooks than the trappers once were while many of the dipnetters, and even more of the anglers, see the commercial fishermen of Cook Inlet as a bigger threat to the salmon today than the traps were back when.

And no matter how traps might benefit them both, there has been no serious discussion of their reintroduction since the 1980s when Anchorage real estate developer and Kenai River homeowner Bob Penney suggested putting a fish trap in the Kenai River.

Penney had a consultant draw up a plan for a trap that would have been run by a collective of the commercial fishermen who’d once worked the Inlet with each pocketing a share of the revenue based on the size of their historic catches.

Penney – who was then and has ever since been detested by commercial fishermen despite his being invested in the commercial fishing business – had little interest in the millions of returning Kenai sockeye salmon that fuel the commercial fishery.

He was happy to let commercial fishermen split the take on the harvest of those fish but wanted a fish trap to allow king salmon to escape entanglement in commercial nets.

At that time, the Kenai supported the world’s premier king salmon sport fishery. Anglers came from around the globe to pursue the biggest of the biggest of Pacific salmon.

In 1985, the late Les Anderson from the Peninsula community of Soldotna hooked and landed the 97-pound, 4-ounce, still-world record Chinook on the Kenai. 

For a decade or so after, many remained convinced that a 100-pounder would eventually be pulled from the river. But that dream faded as the fish shrunk both in size and number.

Today it is rare to see a king of 70- or 80-pounds, and angling has been closed more often than it has been open to protect the limited number of fish that make it back into the river.

Some anglers blame the commercial fishery in the way Alaskans once blamed the traps, but there are no indications commercial fishermen are to blame.

Chinook are struggling all along the Gulf of Alaska coast from Kodiak south to Oregon. This is the case whether they are returning to rivers wild or dammed to generate hydroelectric power. 

The decline has upped the pressure to eliminate the harvest of Pacific Northwest Chinook in the commercial troll fisheries off Alaska’s Panhandle and clean up the bycatch of Chinook in salmon fisheries everywhere.

The latest research suggesting a shift in fishing techniques going back to the future – the Conservancy likes to make a big deal out of how trapping is a thousand years old aboriginal fishing technique on the West Coast – is sure to generate considerable discussion, but is unlikely to change anything in the 49th state.

Commercial fishing interests now hold the sort of political power instate that the trap owners held when the territorial fishery was being managed by the federal government in the nation’s capital.










14 replies »

  1. Your statement that there is no indications that commercial fishermen are to blame for the low abundance of Chinook salmon is debatable. We don’t know how many Chinook have died because of the fishing efforts by the Commercial
    gill net fleets. There has been little to no effort to determine how many Chinook have been killed by the approx 1000 permit holder’s gill nets after getting entangled by their teeth , just long enough for them to die and then drop from from the net never to be recovered or counted. Those numbers could well be very significant over a single season and much more so over multiple seasons.
    Nor do we have info on how many Chinook are harvested but not reported. It is undisputed that it happens. And when “every fish counts” (stated by an ADF&G biologist at a BOF meeting several years ago), any Chinook not accounted for makes management of the species more challenging and adds an element of guesswork to the equation.
    Maybe the term “blame” is a little harsh. But “responsible” in part for low abundance seems fitting to me.

    • Of course the guide fleet on the kenai,which numbered over 400 at one time, taking 2 trips a day with as many as 5 rods per boat,targeting the biggest of the kings are totally blameless. Sheeees!

      • They’ve been gone a long time now….

        Not to mention that how many people fish or how many days people fish are among those wonderfully meaningless things in fisheries management. What matters is how many fish people kill.

      • Craig,
        While the fleet has been reduced, they are still at it, mostly catch and release. But I believe all of those years TARGETING the very biggest of the kings may have removed their genetics from the pool. While this would not necessarily explain the weak runs of late, it just may mean that even if the runs increased to previous higher returns, the Kenai may never see those giant kings again.

      • Gunner, two problems with your statement. There has never been more than 400 guides on the Kenai. The most was in 2006 and it was 395 (which includes upper river trout guides). Also, guides are not allowed to fish more than 4 people in the month of July. In May and June they can fish five rods, but with 20 plus years of a slot limit during the early run, there’s no way they can target the biggest kings. Retention under 34” is hardly a trophy. I will give you this, though. I agree with you that guides are not totally blameless for the current state of the runs.

      • Gern,
        According to a report by ak. Dept. Of Natural Resources, Div. Of Parks, in 2006 there were 437 licensed guides on the kenai. I had not taken the upper river trout guides into consideration,so you are probably correct that there were ONLY 395. My error. I do not recall when the number of rods were reduced, but prior to that, many guides fished 5 rods,2 trips a day.
        The slot limits certainly reduced the retention of the big kings,however there certainly had to be some mortality with all these rods playing catch and release.
        At least we can agree that the guide fleet is not blameless. As someone who has been observing this situation from the early 70’s here in Soldotna I would go further and say that the guide fleet is almost totally responsible for the decline in large kenai kings.

      • Certainly there was mortality, but given the size of the runs at the time it is hard to make an argument that it was significant at a population level.

        As for the effects of size-selective fisheries, the studies are inconclusive. But my gut feeling is that if selecting for larger fish had the impacts you think it has, we wouldn’t have a Cook Inlet sockeye over three pounds by this point. We’ve been size-selectively fishing them with nets for more than a century.

        Furthermore, the size decline in Chinook isn’t limited to the Kenai. It appears to be Pacific wide:

        “Comparing mean body length pre-1990 to mean body length post-2010, Chinook salmon exhibited the greatest magnitude decline, averaging an 8.0% decline in body length….https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17726-z

        Eight percent might not seem like much, but if you’re looking at a 60-inch, 82.30 pound Chinook shrinking to about 55 inches, you’ve now got a 64-pound salmon, according to the length-weight conversion chart. https://www.in-fisherman.com/editorial/chinook-salmon-weight-conversion-chart/154538

        That’s a 22 percent drop in weight due to that 8 percent decline in length.

        So even if we were getting the big returns of Chinook to the Kenai as in the past (which we’re not), an 80-pounder would now be a 60-pounder. And if you figure there weren’t all that many 80-pound-and-up Chinook even back in the gold old days, it’s not surprising there are so few 60 pounders now.

        P.S. And this is from someone who is no big fan of guides. I really don’t need someone telling me how to fish or using their boat to set a hook.

      • Craig.
        Of course you are right .1600 to 3200 rods daily in the kenai,( not counting the nonguided anglers), would certainly have little or no impact on the king return. I was here man. I saw what happened. Do not piss down my back and tell me it is raining.

      • Sorry, Gunner. It is raining.

        How much gear is in the water is irrelevant. What matters is how many fish get killed.

        We could allow setnetting in Upper Cook Inlet up to 24 hours per day from January to April and not need worry about the impacts on sockeye salmon no matter how many nets were in the water or how long.

  2. Waste of Taxpayers’ Dollars; no study was necessary. It’s common sense that a fish trap targets (mostly) that stream’s salmon, while other methods target all streams’ salmon. Some salmon enter the wrong stream only to turn around and seek the correct stream, but they are a low percentage. A return to fish traps is long overdue.

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