Few issues will keep Juneauites inside on a sunny evening, but salmon conservation is among them.
With king salmon fishing closed until mid-June, more than 100 people packed a ballroom at Centennial Hall on Monday to hear from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on what’s expected to be another year of low returns on many Southeast rivers.
It’s a “doom and gloom” situation, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Ed Jones, but one the department hopes will turn around in the next few years.
Territorial Sportsmen hosted the event, the 2018 Salmon Symposium.
In brief, here’s what ADFG officials had to say about Southeast’s Chinook crisis.
King salmon returns are down across Southeast
With few exceptions, king salmon returns are not expected to meet management goals on Southeast river systems this year.
Of the Chilkat, Taku, Stikine, Unuk and Situk, river systems, only the Situk River is expected to meet escapement goals for this year, according to ADFG forecasts, released in December.
The Taku and the Chilkat haven’t met escapement goals recently. The Taku River returned a record-low number of king salmon last year and didn’t meet escapement goals in 2016. It’s expected to only return 4,700 large adult Chinook this year, a new record low. A productive number of Chinook, according to ADFG, would fall in the 19,000-36,000 range.
The Chilkat River has missed escapement goals five of the last six years and Haines sport fishermen haven’t been able to target king salmon since 2015, ADFG’s Brian Elliott said.
That year was an “outlier” in an overall trend of recent poor production.
Regulations have been restricted to boost stocks
ADFG has reduced fishing opportunities for fishermen of all stripes this year in an effort to keep fishing pressure off struggling Chinook stocks.
The coastwide abundance index is the broadest number Fish and Game uses to set overall regulations in Southeast. It’s on a scale of 1.0-2.1.
“Based on what that number comes in at, the regional restrictions are set for the year. … The higher the abundance index number, the more liberalized the regulations are,” ADFG sport fish management biologist Dan Teske said.
This year it’s at 1.07 — a number which calls for drastic drawbacks in fishing opportunities.
Full fishing regulations, which change depending on the fishing area and include by bag and possession limits, can be found at ADFG.alaska.gov.
In short, sport fishermen in the Juneau area and around Southeast won’t be able to retain king salmon until June 15, after the bulk of the Taku River run has made it up river to spawn. In early June, ADFG will assess the strength of the hatchery run in the Juneau area and may open up a special harvest area for those fish.
Something’s happening in the ocean
Management biologists don’t know much, yet, about why king salmon numbers are in decline across Southeast. They are confident in one thing: it’s a salty problem.
Their analysis tells them king salmon are suffering increased mortality in the ocean environment, not in the freshwater river systems, where they spend their early life and where they come to spawn and die.
“There are two main ingredients,” to a salmon run, biologist Phil Richards explained. “You’ve got your freshwater production and your marine survival.”
ADFG measures both ingredients on several rivers in Southeast. Freshwater production is measured by estimating the number of smolt, or juvenile fish, leaving the river every year. Marine survival is measured in the spawning abundance, the number of adult fish returning to the river to reproduce and die.
One ingredient is still doing fine.
“Smolt abundance is relatively stable for the Taku River,” Richards said.
What’s dropped is the number of returning salmon. For the period previous to 2007, about 4 percent of outgoing juvenile salmon returned to the Taku River as adults. That’s dropped to an average of a little less than 2 percent since then.
This tells managers that more Taku Chinook salmon are dying in the ocean than had been previously. For Taku kings, this mortaility is probably occuring in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, where they spend most of their adult lives.
While ADFG knows where salmon are suffering, they don’t know when or why. They are somewhat confident that it’s a problem with early marine mortality, that young king salmon aren’t making it past their first years in the ocean, a problem which could be related to the availability of food.
We’re still at least two years out from any turnaround
Returns on the Taku River and across Southeast probably won’t improve for at least two years, managers say.
“The foreseeable future looks pretty grim for Southeast Alaska. … We’ve seen no indication that this will turn around in one to two years,” Richards said.
Poor run returns compound, Richards explained. Every consecutive year that salmon returns are low means it’s more likely to happen again the next year.
Any given king salmon run is made up of several age classes. Some fish return to spawn after only two years at sea. Others stay out longer.
Because the Taku has experienced two straight years of poor marine survival, the offspring of those returning salmon — call them the freshmen and sophomore classes — are small, compared to historic numbers. The more small classes the school has, the smaller, overall, the student body — or the number of returning salmon — gets.
“Why we’re in trouble right now is this is the first time we’ve had two consecutive marine survivals around 1 percent,” Richards said.
This is compounded by a couple of related trends, like the fact that salmon are returning at younger ages and females are making up a smaller portion of escapements. Richards called it a “double whammy.”
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.