It is that time of the year again - the spring king salmon are starting to show up in our local marine waters.
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King salmon are normally the first of the five Pacific salmon to show up each year. They're also the largest. The heaviest ever recorded was a 126-pound monster caught in a fish trap near Petersburg in 1949, and the world's record for Alaska's state fish on sport gear stands at 97 pounds for a Kenai River fish landed in 1986.
Locally most of the king salmon caught through the middle of May are wild fish destined for the Taku River just south of Juneau. After this time, hatchery stocks congregate near town and typically dominate the sport catch even though the Taku River run lasts through the end of June.
Historically, Taku River king salmon have played an important role in the commercial and sport fisheries in northern Southeast Alaska. The first commercial fishery in Taku Inlet took place in the late 1800s and troll and gillnet fleets targeted these fish throughout the mid 1970s. Then in 1976, as part of what eventually became a coastwide rebuilding program under the Pacific Salmon Treaty signed in 1985, fishing for king salmon was reduced considerably in Southeast Alaska.
A stock assessment program on Taku River king salmon has been in place for many years now and is considered one of the best programs in the world for such a large producer of king salmon. Since 1973, aerial counts of Taku River king salmon spawning abundance have been performed annually by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Mark-recapture studies, along with radio telemetry projects to more accurately estimate spawning abundance and distribution, were initiated in 1989 and 1990. Mark-recapture studies were then implemented again in 1995 and have taken place every year since as part of a cooperative stock assessment program among the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
This work has shown the highest and most consistent levels of production over time, for Taku River king salmon, occurred within an optimal range of spawning abundance. Putting too many or not enough king salmon on the spawning grounds can affect production in future years. With this understanding, the United States and Canada worked together and came to consensus in the spring of 2005 on a game plan for producing the highest and most consistent production of Taku River king salmon over time.
In years when runs are anticipated to exceed the upper range of spawning escapement, the agreement allocates Canada the first 5,000 fish identified as surplus. In 2005, the surplus was large enough that both countries were able to implement directed fisheries. These actions resulted in an optimal range of spawning abundance, and at the same time, U.S. commercial fishermen harvested nearly 22,000 king salmon in Taku Inlet. Additionally, the sport fishery was liberalized in the Juneau area to allow the use of two rods per angler and a bag limit of three king salmon per day that resulted in a total harvest of 2,900 Taku River king salmon.
This year the preseason forecast for the run of Taku River king salmon is predicted to be smaller than last year and initially only Canada will be implementing directed king salmon fisheries. This means that at the start of the season the U.S. will not have any directed king salmon commercial fishing and sport fishing regulations will be the same as the regionwide regulations.
Near the middle of May an updated assessment of the run strength will take place that essentially trumps the preseason forecast. If at that time a U.S. surplus is identified, then directed commercial and liberalized sport fisheries may be implemented through Alaska Department of Fish and Game emergency order authority.
Ed Jones is a king salmon biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Sport Fish.
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