Gov. Sean Parnell has proposed to expand the state’s king salmon research budget by about 68 percent, a request that deserves favorable treatment from the Alaska Legislature during work on the coming year’s budget.
Parnell’s Chinook Salmon Research Initiative proposes to spend $30 million during the coming five years. The first installment, in the fiscal year 2014 budget, would be $10 million layered on top of the current $14.6 million already being spent annually.
“Alaska’s fishing industry is a vital economic engine in our state,” Parnell stated in a news release. “Chinook salmon are a cornerstone of our culture and livelihood. I look forward to working with the Legislature in support of this research initiative.”
This initiative is necessary to get a handle on what ails king salmon, the largest and most valuable of the three species that return to Interior Alaska each year.
The entire Yukon River system has suffered through mostly meager runs for the past 14 years. The average return from 1982 to 1997 was just more than 300,000 fish. Since 1998, the average return has been under 200,000, and returns since 2008 have been particularly dismal.
The Kuskokwim River’s runs are a bit larger than the Yukon’s, ranging from 240,000 to 423,000 in recent years. While the Kuskokwim had some strong runs from 2004 through 2006, the river has had poor returns since 2007.
The low runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim drainages have forced managers to severely curtail subsistence and commercial fishing. That means less food and less cash for people in the villages.
While chum and silver salmon have been more abundant, which helps compensate for the loss of kings, they don’t provide as much cash.
They also don’t substitute easily for food. Kings run during the hot, sunny weather that dominates until mid-July, allowing people to preserve the fish by drying. Summer-run chums mix with the tail end of the king run and usually peak as the weather turns wetter. The weather is even cooler and damper as fall-run chums and silvers move up the rivers in August and September. While the chums and silvers can be dried, doing so requires much more labor and attention, and spoilage losses are far higher. Freezing the fish is an option for some people, but power is expensive and isn’t available at most fish camps.
In the Fairbanks area, some minor personal use and sport fishing has continued because returns to the nearby Chena and Salcha rivers, which are part of the Yukon system, have been relatively healthy. But the king drought is a serious problem along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
Identifying the reasons for the decline, the goal of Parnell’s initiative, is the first step. Then perhaps we can do something about it.