From Reel to Creel

Creel surveyors help keep Alaska's salmon stocks strong by keeping a close tab on how many fish are caught

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2003

With his bag of sampling instruments strapped to his shoulder and clipboard in hand, state technician Levon Alexander was greeted with a calm evening breeze as he tramped down the Amalga Harbor dock to interview an incoming boat for the state's creel survey.

"It's a pretty important job - figuring out where the fish are, when, and in what numbers," Alexander said.

Alexander has been a professional observer for 24 years, doing photography, research and extensive observation of wildlife, including whales, bears, birds and fish. He was trained to do creel surveys for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game five years ago in Ketchikan. This is his second year as a creel survey technician in Juneau.

"Studying wildlife is basically what I do; so (creel surveying) kind of fits in with that," Alexander said.

The data collected from the on-site creel surveys maintains Alaska's fish resource by helping to manage salmon stocks, publish in-season harvest reports and catch rates, predict future harvests and track who is catching what fish.

When not on the dock interviewing fishermen, Alexander is in his tan Fish and Game van busily scribbling on his interview sheet with a No. 2 pencil.

Alexander collects data on the length of time fishing, number of lines or rods in the water, location of catch, how many and what kind of fish were caught, what kind of fish were being targeted, if the boat pulled any crab pots and if any fish were released. The data is then analyzed with computer spreadsheets and statistical analysis programs.

"They don't interview every person that hits the dock," said Bruce White, state fisheries biologist. "They go to randomly selected docks at different times of the day; that's what separates it from a census."

White, who has been a fisheries biologist for three years, works out of the Division of Sport Fish's Douglas office, where he supervises six creel samplers in Juneau, five in Sitka and one in Gustavus.

White has been working in fisheries since 1985, from sampling salmon on the Susitna and Yukon rivers to sampling Pacific cod on a Japanese longliner in the Bering Sea. He spent five years in Excursion Inlet, sampling the commercial harvest, and seven years at the DIPAC hatchery in Juneau, where he was in charge of tagging their fish.

"If they didn't know how many fish were caught in Juneau this year, they wouldn't know for sure what's going on with the fish next year," Alexander said.

Creel samplers also take biological samples of king salmon, halibut and coho. They check for the absence of an adipose fin, an indication there is a coded wire tag in the fish's snout. A coded wire tag is a metal strip one millimeter long with a binary code etched on it. It is embedded in the nose of a fish when it is small, at a hatchery or in a river. (Tagged fish can be hatchery or wild fish.) The tag reveals what hatchery a fish is released from or which river it originated from.

"If they have a coded wire tag in their nose ... we can also figure out the hatchery contribution of different stocks, and that enables us to manage the stock," Alexander said.

White said the main purpose of collecting data on a tagged fish is to determine the status of fish stocks. Fish and Game can determine if certain stocks need protection or if fish harvesting is too close to the quota of salmon set by the Pacific Salmon Commission. The commission was created by a United States-Canada treaty, which allows Alaskans to catch a quota of non-Alaska hatchery salmon in Southeast each year based on a pre-season index.

As of Aug. 3, a preliminary estimate of 62,149 king salmon have been harvested in the Southeast Alaska sport fisheries, of which only 47,080 count toward the treaty. The state Division of Sport Fish is projecting a seasonal treaty harvest of about 52,073 king salmon.

"The whole treaty was designed so that migrating fish that are going down to British Columbia and Washington aren't all harvested up here in Alaska," White said.

"King salmon originating from outside Alaska often come into the Gulf of Alaska and swim around and go down to the outer coast, so we're fishing on them before they get back down to British Columbia, Washington and Oregon."

Amid the throng of surveys, samples and calculations, Alexander and White have come to see trends and spot abnormalities. Their discoveries as creel samplers and biologists make their vocation valuable to the fishing trade.

"It's good to see people develop and actually make a career out of this kind of work," White said.

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