ANCHORAGE -The Alaska Board of Fisheries has made deep cuts in the fishing time of the False Pass June salmon fishery in an effort to let more chum salmon swim farther north to Western Alaska rivers.
The action last week came after three weeks of haggling at the board's marathon meeting in Anchorage.
Gov. Tony Knowles had asked the board to stop the interception of chum salmon at False Pass to help prop up poor chum runs on Western Alaska rivers, where even subsistence needs have not been met.
The governor declared salmon disasters in three out of the past four years, triggering millions in relief funding for villagers along the Kuskokwim, Yukon and other rivers.
The board installed a system of "windows" or periods during the June fishery when the fleet of 164 gillnet boats and about 55 seiners won't be allowed to fish, thereby letting some fish pass through. In recent years, much of the fleet was allowed to fish around the clock.
Fishermen at False Pass, also known as Area M, decried the cuts in fishing time as a devastating economic blow that will cut by half or more their fishing days in the June fishery.
The result, they said, will be big catch reductions for a scientifically uncertain goal: whether the restrictions really help prop up depleted Western Alaska chum runs.
"The fishery has been totally turned upside down," said Brad Barr, an Area M gillnetter.
Michelle Sparck of the Association of Village Council Presidents praised the board's action as progress toward a longtime complaint of Western Alaska subsistence fishermen: that the Area M fishery has been grabbing their chum salmon.
"Their idea of hardship is to our people totally unattainable," she said.
Area M has been a lightning rod for many years. The fishery at the end of the Alaska Peninsula has long been a great place to fish as scads of salmon round the bend, bound for Bristol Bay and for Western Alaska rivers farther north. At one time Area M was one of the state's most lucrative salmon fisheries, with permit prices running $400,000 or more.
In recent years, however, Area M has come under increasing regulatory restrictions to reduce the fleet's catch of chum salmon, which are mixed with the more valuable red salmon that fishermen prefer to catch. Also, prices for all Alaska salmon have been devastated by the rising supply of salmon from foreign fish farms.
Board member Ed Dersham, who voted with the 6-1 majority to impose the Area M restrictions, said he sympathizes with the Area M fishermen and Alaska Peninsula towns like King Cove and Sand Point that fought fiercely against the cutback.
"When they say it's a severe restriction, they're not kidding," Dersham said. "There's no doubt that we took serious measures here. We tried to balance all the considerations - conservation, economics."