On the salmon hot seat

Posted: Friday, February 28, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Let's talk numbers, of fish counts and forecasts. I recently met with Herman Savikko, of the Department of Fish and Game. He is a member of a third-generation Douglas family. He's 49 and has worked for the Department for 23 years, starting in Bristol Bay as a fish counter.

We can take a great deal of pride in the job the Department of Fish and Game and all Alaskans have done in managing the fisheries. It is based on a solid principle, that the fish come first, and that fish processors and fishermen come second. This principle is written into the State Constitution, which supports management on a sustained-yield basis. It is imbued in the day-to-day operation of the department. As Savikko says, in Alaska the local biologist makes the critical decisions on such things as fish openings and closings, and is rarely overruled by higher-ups.

Such is not the record of fish management in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and sadly in Alaska before 1959 when the federal government regulated the fisheries. Decisions in those jurisdictions are often made at the top, influenced by politics and special interests. The result has been a sharp decline in production, which has been abetted by a degradation of the environment.

Savikko stated that in 2002 there was a salmon catch of 130 million fish, which was lower than the recent five-year average of 160 million. The 2002 catch was broken down as 539,000 king salmon, 15 million chums, 22.5 million sockeyes, 4.8 million cohos, and 87.6 million pinks. Previously Savikko worked with information services so he is familiar with the numbers. Now he is the state coordinator with the federal government on Bering Sea crab and Gulf of Alaska scallops. His old job is held by Susan Shirley.

Last year the forecast for pink salmon in Southeast was 36.5 million, and the actual catch was 45.6 million. This year the forecast is 43.5 million fish. Southeast is the principal pink salmon area, with Prince William Sound and Kodiak Island also contributing.

But Susan Shirley is on the hot seat this year. Not only does she have to come up with the pink salmon harvest forecast, she also has to make a determination of whether the plants in Southeast can handle the run. This is, of course, complicated by the Wards Cove closure of its Ketchikan and Excursion Inlet canneries. The report should be complete by March 15. Then the real question comes up. Under 5 Alaska Administrative Code, Section 39.198, the governor cannot grant a permit for foreign ships to buy Alaska salmon unless a determination is made that Alaska's fish processors can't do the job. So big things happen with fish counts and harvests and estimates of processing capacity.

There is a number in the fish story that is not pursued with as much diligence as that of fish counts and harvests. However, it is equally important. About 40 million fish entered the streams and lakes in 2002, to deposit eggs and milt, leaving carcasses in the water and on the shoreline. This is just an approximation, taking a third of the harvest total. But what a rich resource this is. Without the disintegrating fish there would be no future runs. This is the food that feeds the tiny organisms, that feed the salmon fry before they embark on their voyage to the distant oceans.

Go down to Sheep Creek in the summer to see the thousands of salmon, when the crab and halibut congregate at the creeks' mouth to feed on the scraps, and the eagles and crows and raven and wandering bears linger, then go back the following spring. Nature has used the nutrients to nourish all the creatures there, and the unsightly fish carcasses are gone.

Mark your calendar, March 15, when the crucial fish report is due to come out.

Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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