Salmon Management on the Kuskokwim – Dealing With Uncertainty, Complications and Occasional Controversy

What’s ahead for Kuskokwim River fishers?  More than likely lower king salmon escapement goals set by the Department of Fish and Game and a potential new Management Plan with actions geared toward attaining the new goals.

Interesting times, and possibly frustrating times, are likely ahead, especially if we continue to see low returns like we’ve experienced the past few years.

But why lower escapement goals?  They’ve got mainly to do with something called a run reconstruction.  The Department of Fish and Game have spent the past few years pulling together all their acquired information (e.g., 30+ years of weir data from the Kogrukluk weir on the upper Holitna, mark/recapture studies, subsistence and commercial harvest data, etc.) and using new tools to assess how many king salmon returned to the Kuskokwim as far back as 1976.

A snippet of that effort estimates a high return of up to 400,000 kings and a low of 240,000 between the years 2003 and 2007.  The past few years, however, having the lowest escapements on record, were well below that low number.

Why such variation?  That has to do with the productivity of our rivers and the ocean that varies in time do to climatic and other events.  One culprit for such deviation in the ocean is what’s called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) that affects its productivity; looking back in time the appears to be ten years of high production followed by ten or so of poor production.  One aspect of interest with the PDO – when the conditions are usually good for Alaska salmon of the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, they aren’t for their relatives further south in the Pacific Northwest.  But after a decade if those conditions reverse, the salmon off the west coast increase in abundance while our salmon tend to go down the tubes.

But as soon as scientists think they have a handle on such environmental drivers as the PDO, something else pops up; of late, that something is climate change.  It’s these changes, along with the difficulty of really knowing for sure how many fish are in the river that generates the uncertainty that is so prevalent in fisheries management.  Often times it’s that uncertainty that leads not only to complexity, but also the occasional controversy.

This past summer with its apparent low returns and consequent restrictions was a good example.  Given the restrictions, it would have been nice to accurately know just how many fish returned to spawn, but because of the high water at many of the weir sites, precise numbers are not known.  But that’s not to say there weren’t years with accurate data that were incorporated into the run reconstruction; the Department biologists are doing the best they can with what they have to work with.

Here’s where some of the complexity comes in to play.  During any given fishing season, not all the fish we catch in our nets or see on the spawning grounds were born the same year.  Part of the run reconstruction deals not only with what comes back each year to spawn (that is the escapement), but also what those fish that made it back ultimately produce in the subsequent years.

In order to know that, biologists first need to know what the age composition of a particular year’s run.  How do they know how old the salmon are?  Their ages are determined by scales collected from the various weir projects; like the rings of a tree tell us how old the tree is, so do the rings of a scale (hopefully you can see why weirs are such a valuable tool).  Scales are also taken from the subsistence and commercial catches.  From the age data we know that king salmon return to the Kuskokwim between the ages of three and eight years old.

As part of the reconstruction, the Department uses what’s called a spawner/recruit relationship.  The recruits are what come back over time from any given year’s spawners (every individual year’s return is comprised of numerous age classes from various spawning years).  Let’s look at one particular year – 1992 when it’s estimated that throughout the entire Kuskokwim 285,370 king salmon returned or “escaped” to spawn.  The age data from the scales told us that 7,109 of those were three-year olds (or jacks), 76,311 were four-year olds, 95,222 were five-year olds, 100,459 were six-year olds, 6,246 were seven-year olds and only eight returning kings were eight-year olds.

So if we do the math, those eight-year old fish were from eggs deposited in the gravel in 1984.  The seven-year olds were spawned in 1985, and so on down to the three-year old component that had parents spawning in 1989.

But why lower the escapement goals when we are already seeing low returns?  It doesn’t seem to make any sense does it?  First of all, the Department established the current escapement goals using data mostly from high escapement years (that just happens to be when most weirs came on line).

And the long-term data set shown in the following graph shows dips around 1978 and 1994 followed by upswings – generating somewhat of a cyclic pattern; even if you go back prior to 1976 the pattern still holds.  Could that be from the Pacific Decadal Oscillation resulting in some type of competition among the fish somewhere over their lives?  Quite possibly.

Note that the red horizontal line above is at 1.00 – this is the replacement line.  If all those blue bars were even with the read line, then for every fish that came back to spawn just one fish returned.  It wouldn’t matter if it were three, four or eight years later – the result is the same, a steady population with no growth or no losses.  But that’s not how nature works.

What the graph shows is that when the bars are above that line more fish ultimately returned than spawned for that given parent or brood year which demonstrates good to very good productivity.  Then in those years that are below that line – something happened in the environment over a fish’s lifetime that created competition among the siblings – and even other year classes – to where not as many fish survived to came back as spawned them.  Consequently, productivity took a downturn.

The basis then for lowering escapement goals is ultimately to get more fish on the spawning grounds and in subsistence and commercial fishermen’s nets.  It just doesn’t sound logical does it?  An expert independent scientist, not associated with the Department of Fish and Game, concluded during the AYKSSI meeting recently that over-fishing (i.e., commercial or otherwise) has not contributed to the low runs we have seen.  Others scientists concluded that reduced productivity levels in our local streams and the Bering Sea are what is driving the recent low returns that we’ve experienced.

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Several new management plans have emerged that will go before the Board of Fisheries next month.  Given what was previously discussed, there still is not consensus on what the escapement goal (or goals) should be among the Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group.

The Department has submitted a proposed plan that will compliment their recently revised escapement goal (they intend to have only one for the entire Kuskokwim River that resulted from the run reconstruction).

Of their proposed changes, one in particular will not be received well – especially for those subsistence fishers above Bethel.  Here’s an excerpt from that proposal:  if king abundance is projected to be inadequate to meet escapement goals and to provide for a reasonable subsistence opportunity, and if the commissioner determines that there is a harvestable surplus of chum sufficient to provide for escapement needs and a reasonable opportunity for subsistence, the commissioner may, by emergency order, open a directed chum fishery and the department shall manage to the extent practical, the commercial chum fishery to minimize the harvest of king salmon.

The obvious reason for discontent being that even if it is known that the escapement goal will not be met, then some king salmon would be incidentally harvested in a directed chum salmon commercial fishery.  That amount would vary, depending on conditions.

Because the Working Group had several issues with Department’s proposed plan, they came up with one of their own that will be presented to the Board of Fisheries.  I participated on the committee that developed the draft plan that was agreed upon at the last Working Group meeting.

Here’s that same section as is in the Department’s plan – with a slight twist: if king abundance is projected to be inadequate to achieve the drainage-wide escapement goal and to provide for ANS, and if the commissioner determines that there is a harvestable surplus of chum sufficient to provide for escapement needs and a reasonable opportunity for subsistence, then the commissioner may… open a directed chum fishery and the department shall manage the commercial chum fishery to harvest fewer than 1,000 kings for the season.

The reason the Working Group’s plan has a cap of 1,000 fish is that we believe there needs to be some limit as to how many kings are taken, knowing that subsistence fishers above Bethel will likely have a particularly difficult time harvesting kings.

It was difficult for me as part of the committee to go along with even a few kings taken in a commercial fishery, but I realize how important economic opportunities are for everyone during these hard economic times; the other committee members were aware of that too.  Personally, I have not harvested a king salmon the past two seasons because I have cast my 7 ½-inch net aside – not to one side or the other of the boat – but on shore.  For now, I mostly put away silvers and sheefish.

Can we in the Kuskokwim work together and work through these difficult times?  I hope so, and I was encouraged by what I heard at the AYKSSI meeting…and it wasn’t from a scientist, it was from a fisherman from Norton Sound.  He talked about two acts of civil disobedience that he was involved with – well, they were actually acts of reverse civil disobedience.

Steve Ivanoff from Unalakleet told of a recent time when they enacted a self-imposed three-year moose moratorium, even when the Department of Fish and Game didn’t endorse it.  He also told of a time when a commercial fishing period for king salmon was announced, but many fishermen just sat on the beach and watched for they didn’t think that escapement would be met…and they ended up being right.

They were told that they could hunt and fish, but they were more concerned about the animals and the future opportunities for their children, so they chose voluntarily not catch!  Mr. Ivanoff stated that the reason they were able to endure those self-imposed conservation measures was because they had, and used, alternate food sources.  In other words, they adapted in order to allow the populations to build back up so that their children would not have to sacrifice.

Will our salmon populations rebound from the “lowest escapements on record”?  Hopefully they will.  If the cycles shown in that graph are any indication of what’s to come, they will…but it might take a while.

The ultimate question is – can we here in the Kuskokwim voluntarily conserve by adapting our fishing practices like using smaller mesh gear and switching to other more abundant species like sockeye, chums, silvers and sheefish?

Like the people of Norton Sound, everyone must do their part and think not only of themselves – but those upstream and downstream of us as well as future generations.

As so many elders have said, “When people argue about fish the fish will disappear.”, and we most certainly don’t want that.

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