Recently I had the privilege to visit several villages on the lower Yukon River. I went with John Moller of Gov. Sarah Palin's staff and knowledgeable employees from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to discuss this summer's chinook salmon management and recent action by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to curb bycatch of chinook by the pollock trawl fleets in the Bering Sea.
We knew we were repeating distressing news. As far as we can project, the commercial fishery for chinook will not open in the Yukon River - yet again - this year. I also knew that many Alaskans feel that the North Pacific Council should have taken stronger action to control bycatch. What I wasn't prepared for, but should have been, was the graciousness and respect granted us by our hosts in Holy Cross, Anvik, Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Mountain Village and Emmonak.
Yukon River chinook runs have been poor the last two years and spawning escapement for the up-river, Canadian-bound stocks failed to meet goals. Prospects for 2009 are similar. The management strategy will reduce harvest on those stocks, and shift some subsistence effort to healthier Alaskan-spawning stocks. This strategy had been developed over the course of several months, with broad input from people up and down the river.
It's important to remember that 60 to 80 percent of the "first pulse" of chinook into the river spawn in Canadian waters. Protecting these fish helps sustain runs for future harvest by Alaskans and Canadians all along the river. Biologists also monitor the run as it moves upstream, take inseason action based upon the number of fish actually returning, and work with local fishermen to relax restrictions if the run exceeds expectations. We see the sacrifices being made and the urgency of providing as much fishing opportunity as possible. Lastly, Fish & Game received funding this year, requested by Gov. Palin and authorized by the Legislature, to provide additional information for better management of Yukon River fisheries.
Inriver actions are being taken under state authority within state waters, something well understood. However, the bycatch issue needed to be explained in the context of a more complex, federal management regime, subject to substantially different laws and procedures. But we relayed that the six Alaska representatives on the council led an unprecedented effort over the past couple years to exert real control over the bycatch of chinook salmon in the pollock trawl fishery.
Admittedly, these limits are higher than advocated by many rural Alaskans. But combined with potential incentives that would further penalize bad performance by the pollock fleet and reward good performance, the council established a system to limit bycatch at all levels of chinook abundance.
We heard concerns about other potential impacts to chinook salmon: jet boats, mining and timber harvests on spawning grounds; lack of adequate fisheries enforcement; climate change; effects of management actions and shifting fishing effort to later in the season. We all agreed we need a better understanding of chinook salmon declines.
In Emmonak, one leader told us that, while he came to the meeting thinking we were fighting against them, he now understood we were fighting for them. Another leader stood to shake hands with me in a sincere and symbolic gesture of mutual concern and respect. I was humbled by both.
I'm not foolish enough to think these meetings have overcome the anxiety, apprehension and even distrust that families along the Yukon River may still feel. I do, however, take exception to coverage by the Anchorage Daily News. In their apparent pursuit of speed over substance, the newspaper didn't wait for Mr. Moller or me to get back into communication, did not even wait for the meetings to be completed. They seemed interested in neither context nor respect.
Yukon River chinook are a resource requiring our best efforts to sustain and utilize. We hope these inriver restrictions will be short-lived, but the long-term control of chinook bycatch has just begun. Offshore fisheries must account for the cost of their actions.
Denby Lloyd is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and is a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.