KODIAK — For setnet fishermen at the south end of Kodiak Island, “jack” is a four-letter word in more ways than one.
Down at the end of the island, where Olga Bay hooks like a curved finger, is Dog Salmon Creek.
The creek flows from Frazer Lake, home to one of the largest sockeye fisheries on the island. But there’s a problem.
Since 2003, setnetters on the Dog Salmon have been dealing with periodic sockeye salmon runs filled by the small fish with the short name.
Jack salmon are immature, typically male, salmon that return early to their spawning river. Almost every sockeye salmon run in the world has a few, usually no more than 10 percent of the total run. In 2003, almost 90 percent of the sockeye run on the Dog Salmon was made up of jacks. Preliminary measurements indicate this year’s run is about 40 percent jacks, and fishermen are not happy.
“I’d say most fishermen down there are concerned but don’t know what to do about it and don’t know what to do to alleviate this problem,” said Eric Diders, a fisherman who holds permits in Moser Bay, at the mouth of the Dog Salmon Creek.
Jacks are a problem because they’re not as valuable as normal-sized fish. Their flesh is mushy, and canneries try to avoid them — when fishermen can even catch them.
“We’re unable to catch them because they’re so small,” said Alf Pryor, a fisherman and co-owner of Dead Humpy Gallery in Kodiak.
Jacks are small enough to slip through setnets and make their way up to Frazer Lake Fish Pass, where they climb over a set of waterfalls and into the lake.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sets its escapement goals — the number of fish that reach a spawning area — by the number of fish alone. It doesn’t examine whether those fish are jacks.
“It’s concerning because they’re counting them as part of the run,” Diders said.
Fish cannot pass into Frazer Lake without the fish pass, which is closed when the escapement goal is reached. Fish that aren’t beyond the ladder by the time it is closed don’t reach spawning grounds and don’t reproduce. Fishermen are worried that if too many jacks are passing the fish ladder first, they’re the ones passing on their genes to future generations, possibly ensuring more jacks.
Even if they don’t, having too many jacks — which are almost all male — ensures the balance of the sexes is knocked out of kilter. Too many males means fewer breeding pairs and fewer fish in the future.
“When they go and potentially create more jacks for future years, that affects me in future years,” Diders said. “It’s a perpetual cycle that’s been affecting more people in our area. It’s really frustrating.”
Large numbers of jacks aren’t unheard of. Orzinski Lake on the Alaska Peninsula faces a similar problem, but it isn’t fished as heavily and the problem isn’t as severe, said biologist Matt Foster. What makes Frazer Lake’s problem unusual is that it has one at all.
The Frazer Lake run is man-made.
In the 1950s, Alaska biologists stocked the Frazer Lake area with fish from three Kodiak Island lakes. Those fish returned, and Fish and Game built the Frazer Lake fish pass in 1962 to allow them to move over a set of waterfalls that prevented the lake from developing a salmon stock naturally.
While fish return naturally today, without Fish and Game’s fish pass, they wouldn’t be able to reach their spawning grounds and would disappear from the creek.
For the first 30 years of the run, it functioned normally. In the late 1980s, concerns about the lake’s food supply made Fish and Game fertilize the lake. By 1991, the project had been almost too successful, Foster said.
Enormous fish runs returned to Dog Salmon Creek and Frazer Lake, forcing Fish and Game to begin closing the fish pass earlier and earlier each year to prevent too many fish from reaching the lake and eating themselves out of a home.
“They had to cut off the run unfortunately prematurely,” Foster said. “That could lead to a genetic bottleneck. The fish that were able to spawn ... you’ve unnaturally selected for fish that got into the lake early.”
In 1995, Fish and Game started seeing an increase in the proportion of jacks, but it wasn’t anything particularly notable. Still, the trend continued.
“In 2003, that was an important, maybe a bad year for Frazer,” Foster said. “What you got was a year when a small number of big fish came back.”
That happens naturally from time to time, but 2003 was a particularly bad year. That year’s run was 60 percent to 70 percent jacks when it encountered the commercial sockeye fishery in Alitak and Moser bays.
“They go through a gillnet fishery,” Foster explained, “which is size-selective. Jacks aren’t caught in that fishery.”
Then the bears got their taste.
Since the Frazer Lake sockeye fishery was established, Kodiak’s brown bears have grown accustomed to eating their fill.
“The bears hang out there big time,” said biologist Steve Thomson, who works at the fish pass. “It’s been averaging about 1,200 visitors per year (for bear viewing).”
Bears prefer larger fish, tending to leave jacks alone.
By the time the fish hit the lake, the run was 80 percent to 90 percent jacks, Foster said.
“Jacks cannot out-compete adult males in spawning, but when there’s that many ... it does seem like the perfect storm sort of mechanism,” he said.
Four years later, the fish bred from that year’s run returned, and again there was a large percentage of jacks, though fewer than 2003. This year, the jacks have again returned in large numbers, but still fewer than in either 2007 or 2003.
Though the figures say a lot, they don’t answer the simplest question: Why?
Fish counted at the Upper Station weir in Olga Bay are subject to the same fishing pressures as the Frazer Lake fish, but that weir doesn’t report anywhere near the same number of jacks, Foster said.
“That would lead you to believe there’s something else in Frazer,” he said.
Whether or not Fish and Game can answer why the jacks are coming, they can at least do something about it. Rather than simply shutting off the fish pass when escapement was reached this year, Thomsen said he tried to ensure enough female fish reached Frazer Lake, too.
“We kept it open a little longer this year,” he said. “You want to be cognizant of the female ratio ... and also to respond to the fishermen.”
“It might be a higher escapement than we want, but it’s exactly the midpoint for females,” Foster said.
Because full-sized fish easily out-compete jacks when it comes to breeding, the cycle of jacks has decreased every four years since it began in 2003, correcting the abnormal situation.
“Those peaks seem to be declining, but what we’re seeing is a cycle that’s persisting because of that one big year,” Foster said.
While the problem is getting better, Fish and Game has no solution but time.
“I don’t see a real easy answer to correcting the problem, if it is a problem at all,” Foster said.
Herring nets or other small-mesh nets could scoop jacks from the creek, but, “It’s a real touchy subject about who’s actually going to step up and do something about it,” Diders said.
Foster said anything would be on the time and effort of the fishermen. From Fish and Game’s standpoint, the best idea might be to allow biologists on the river to control escapement by sex, rather than numbers.
That would allow full-sized fish to out-compete jacks more easily and reduce the threat to breeding.
But that would require the authority of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and no proposal is listed on the board’s agenda for the coming year.
Proposing sex-selective escapement would require a joint effort by dozens of fishermen lobbying the board.
Even if nothing is done, the problem may solve itself if biologists allow nature to take its course in the man-made run.
“We should be seeing that cycle decreasing,” Foster said, “if something else doesn’t happen.”