Alaska Editorial: Mind the gaps

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

State fisheries managers are creating a plan for research that could help them figure out why king salmon runs have been so poor in recent years and whether they can do anything about it. It’s a much-needed effort.

This week in Anchorage, the state brought in experts to identify the gaps in the draft plan. They received some useful comments. Reviewers urged that more attention be given to ocean acidification, climate change and the ecological effects of the Bering Sea pollock-fishing industry. They also encouraged research into how wild salmon populations are affected by the annual release of millions of fish from commercial hatcheries.

With an unlimited budget, the state could take on all these topics in great detail. That’s not going to happen, of course, so research must focus on those areas where the knowledge is weakest, the potential impact is deepest and the opportunity for corrective action is greatest.

Hatchery releases fit that description. One reviewer of the state’s plan summed it up nicely: “This is a huge area and people have avoided thinking about it.”

A great deal of focus already has been placed on ocean by-catch of king salmon by the pollock fleet. The direct-catch numbers don’t explain the king declines in the Yukon River system. Taking a closer look at the broader ecological effects of the pollock harvest might be a worthwhile endeavor, though.

State managers, in the draft plan, suggested a few places to start looking for details that might reveal what is happening on the Yukon. They see a need for genetic analysis that could lead to a better understanding of the in-river run. They’d also like more subsistence catch information, which has been “incomplete due to low (15 percent) response to voluntary returns of harvest calendars in areas not accessible by road.”

Relative to other rivers in Alaska, the Yukon still hosts an impressive king salmon run (in part thanks to the Chena and Salcha rivers in the Fairbanks area, which are among the largest individual contributors).

But all is not well. From 1982 to 1997, the Yukon’s average run size was more than 300,000. From 1998 to 2011, the average return was less than 200,000. Some of those latter years brought barely more than 100,000.

It’s good to see the state taking a serious look at what can be done.

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