I attended the AVCP Salmon Summit from March 6th-8th, which focused on ways to conserve Chinook salmon and develop ways to incorporate more tribal involvement in salmon management. The meeting was filled with numerous presentations by state and federal agencies (i.e., ADF&G, USFWS and NOAA). Personally I was somewhat disappointed with some of the presentations because they weren’t tailored to the audience very well. There could have been lots of good information disseminated to the majority in attendance who’ve never participated in the Salmon Management Working group over the years; as is often the case, several presentations were too technical and loaded with too many graphs and pie charts. That was particularly pertinent for the elders who aren’t used to seeing Power Point type presentations and being bombarded with such detailed information by fast talking ologists. Although the presentations could have helped with the discussions and breakout sessions that followed, I think they contributed to some confusion and exacerbated inherent disagreements.
Overlooking that, the big message on the first day of agency presentations was that the production of Chinook salmon overall is way down. That includes not only the Chinook returning to the Kuskokwim, Yukon and Norton Sound regions, but South Central AK as well. You can see by the graph below that we had high returns in 2006 and 2007, but they’ve continued to drop to where 2010 and 2011 were the lowest on record (note how they mirror numbers prior to the very low returns of 1998-2000). Unfortunately, I think that message was lost throughout much of the rest of the meeting.
Those numbers indicate to me that something might be happening out in the ocean. That something is most likely ocean conditions themselves…or maybe the hot topic that continually popped up which was bycatch; or, as is often the case, it could be a combination of both. One presentation that everyone enjoyed and understood was one that explained the ecological relationships during the Chinook’s salt-water residency. Kate Myers talked about how natural regime shifts affect populations in the oceans, particularly in reference to where and when different age classes spend their time growing up and feeding…and what they eat. She also discussed the implications of climate change.
I was surprised to hear that in some years, the Chinook have, as part of their stomach contents, offal from pollock discarded by the processing boats; unfortunately, that isn’t as nutritious as the natural prey which can shift from year to year. They’ve even found small amounts of plastic in their stomachs!
If one were to have kept track of the words spoken over those 2 ½ days, I’m guessing that the word bycatch came up most often. Unfortunately, that controversial topic is pretty complex and not something anyone in the Kuskokwim has any direct influence on. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying to minimize how much occurs by getting involved in the process and pursuing having a subsistence delegate on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. As the discussion focused on how to reduce – or totally eliminate – bycatch, several residents pointed out how many people in our region benefit from the pollock fishery through CVRF’s fleet.
One presentation showed that after that very controversial year of 2007 when the bycatch topped 120,000 kings, it’s dropped substantially due to time-area-closures. However, it did did have a jump to around 24,000 last year. It’s not certain, but a ballpark assumption is that roughly 15% of the Chinook bycatch may be coming to the Kuskokwim. If that’s the case, then about 18,000 – a fairly high number – didn’t return in 2008 from those 122,000 caught in late summer of 2007. However, that year a total of about 240,000 did make it back. Another assumption is that bycatch numbers are high when overall Chinook populations are high. Conversely, when the numbers are lower in the ocean, bycatch is lower. So about 1,500 didn’t make it back last summer from the overall 10,000 bycatch that occurred in 2010. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is responsible for allocation, and although they are concerned with the bycatch numbers, they tend to believe that bycatch in the Kuskokwim, for the most part, doesn’t have a strong influence on the escapement (This is from a discussion I had with a biologist last year).
Prior to the breakout sessions a sheet was handed out with possible questions to consider, one being, “What can I do to help conserve salmon?” Unfortunately, it got overshadowed by a few heated discussions on bycatch. It’s my belief that what we need to focus on in these years of low returns are the things that we can control…which are our actions. First and foremost in my mind would be how are we affecting escapements…especially quality of escapement (e.g., how many females and what age classes)?
If we are to discuss quality of escapement, then another controversial topic pops up – the possible restriction of subsistence gear size. As you might guess, that topic came up from Kuskokwim people, mostly from those strongly opposing any restrictions. As Calvin Simeon used to say, “It’s the white elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
For last summer, both the Board of Fish and Federal Subsistence Board went to a 7 ½” regulation on the Yukon River to protect the larger fish, which tend to be females. Preliminary data that I saw at the meeting showed that more and larger females made it back to the spawning grounds; but keep in mind that that is only one year’s worth of data. Unfortunately, I heard that some of those now illegal nets have made their way down here to the Kuskokwim!
It’s important to keep in mind where that preliminary data come from. It came from escapement projects. How critical are such projects? Well, the basic needs for managing the fish includes the number of fish returning to spawning areas, age and gender of those coming back, average size at a particular age, the genetic identifier of the particular spawning stocks (i.e., genetics that can tease out what fish are being caught where as bycatch), and run timing which shows when those fish show up at the mouth of the Kuskokwim and when they reach the spawning grounds. One other component of fisheries management, and one that is derived from escapement goal projects is the harvest rate or exploitation.
I’ve included this bigger picture discussion about the need to maintain information projects throughout the drainage because it fits in with the theme of the meeting, which was to get more input into the management of the fisheries; in fact, many people are wanting co-management. If the state or federal agencies are going to listen more to the people, then credibility is a must. Traditional knowledge is important, but so is understanding the data and the need for it.
Look at the Kwethluk and Tuluksak weir information for kings on the following table. Kwethluk the last two years had only 4,000 and 1,700 (10 year avg. was about 11,000) and Tuluksak 286 and 239 when the 10-year avg. was about 1,000 (one contributor to the decline of the run is the past habitat disruption of the river channel by dredge mining). Keep in mind too that the majority of kings returning are almost always males. So in 2010 only 62 females made it back to the Tuluksak while only 74 made it back last summer! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that darn few eggs were deposited in the Tuluksak the past few years.
Projects like this are vital in understanding what’s escaping to the spawning grounds.
If you go back to that very first graph you’ll see how many Chinook have been coming back each year and how many have been harvested in both the subsistence and commercial fisheries. The black line is the exploitation rate that doesn’t seem to exceed 50%, and is usually much less than that. Harvest is both commercial and subsistence with subsistence averaging around 70,000-80,000 a year, which is the largest subsistence Chinook fishery in the state. Of late, the commercial catch has been very low and it generally takes the smaller kings that tend to be the males; the reason being the restricted mesh size that commercial fishermen are allowed to use.
So the subsistence harvest is pretty substantial and contributes the most to the exploitation rate. Looking at the high level of subsistence harvest in 2008, it’s speculated that many people caught fish for relatives and friends in the Yukon that did extremely poor. In years of low returns the subsistence harvest then is a large component of the exploitation rate…and you can’t keep taking too many fish. Several people, including Earl Samuelson, pointed out the size of Bethel, and that they may need some restrictions before any of the villages.
That tells me that there is a real need for all to sacrifice, not just Bethel residents, and allow as many larger females to escape when runs get so weak. The villages of Akiak and Kwethluk did their part by reducing their harvest by almost half! The problem is that not everyone throughout the drainage did…but it’s time that we all do our part for the good of the kings.