Alaska editorial: State needs better plan for keeping fish stocks healthy

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

Last week's emergency decision by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the Deshka River king salmon fishery to sport fishing is the latest example that the state needs to do more than simply fish for answers to low salmon return numbers in area rivers.

Low return rates for sockeye salmon sparked major discussion this past winter as the Alaska Board of Fisheries met. As sport fishing supporters point fingers at commercial fishing operations, and others say unseasonable cool weather patterns may be to blame, the truth is nobody can tell for sure why kings are slow in returning to Southcentral Alaska.

With just 2,009 kings passing the Deshka River weir - a far cry from the 12,000 to 15,000 state officials say would be a normal run - closing the river to sport fishing and canceling the Northern District commercial king season is the correct decision. How to deal with continuing low return numbers of salmon is another question altogether.

The only thing that's clear about why so few kings are reaching the Deshka is that nobody really knows. Protecting our uniquely Alaska environment, commercial fishing and sport fishing industries must be priorities. Kings this year may be down because of overfishing by commercial interests or, as some experts believe, they're running later this year because of our unseasonably cool spring. The next few weeks will show whether the latter hypothesis is correct.

In either case, Alaska lawmakers need to do more than troll for temporary fixes. The Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, made up of 10 state lawmakers are scheduled to meet this week in Anchorage to question biologists about salmon forecasts for the rest of the season.

In addition to a review of the Susitna River Action Plan - the Deshka is a tributary of the Susitna - we encourage the task force to urge the Department of Fish and Game to commission a comprehensive study to determine what's keeping salmon, whether sockeye or king, from returning in robust numbers. Until identifiable reasons can be confirmed, state officials, commercial fishermen and sport fishers will continue to cast broad nets of supposition.

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