Anchorage Daily News Article On Poor Chinook Returns State-wide

Here’s an excerpt of an article in the Anchorage Daily News discussing the variability in ocean conditions, and how they have contributed to the low returns we are seeing here in the Kuskokwim.

Decline in king salmon is rooted in the sea, state biologists say

Whatever’s plaguing state’s salmon isn’t in the rivers, experts say.

Anchorage Daily News

Published: June 23rd, 2012 08:52 PM
Last Modified: June 23rd, 2012 10:49 PM

Something in the ocean has been death to Alaska’s king salmon.

The state’s iconic fish, treasured for food, sport and cash, should now be swimming in droves up rivers from the Southeast rain forests to the populated Railbelt and the Western Alaska tundra.

But they’re not.

To preserve future runs, state officials are clamping down throughout Alaska, banning even catch-and-release fishing of returning kings in Southcentral and halting subsistence king fishing on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. They’re still reviewing whether to restrict the commercial setnetters in Cook Inlet who target sockeyes but can’t help taking kings as well.

“We’re in a period of low abundance and low returns, statewide, and whether it’s from Southeast, Copper River, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Nushagak, Yukon, we’re just in this period of low productivity in the ocean,” said Ricky Gease, a biologist and director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

You can read the entire article at


The Latest Bethel Test Fish Numbers

Here are the latest Bethel Test Fish cumulative numbers as of 6/22.  Note how the chum numbers are really climbing compared to the Chinook and sockeye.

People have been drifting with 4″ mesh and nets 60 feet or shorter near Aniak and have been catching chums and sockeye with an occasional Chinook showing up.

Bethel Test Fish Chinook CPUE (Catch-Per-Unit-Effort)

Bethel Test Fish Sockeye CPUE

Bethel Test Fish Chum Cumulative CPUE

Ray Turner Jr. Drifting With Friend Near Aniak


Talking Points Of KYUK’s Call-In Show On June 21

There were several questions brought up during the two-hour KYUK Call-In show the day after the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group meeting where the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and Fish & Wildlife Service continued the closure periods against the wishes of the Working Group.

Over the past few weeks, and actually almost every year, people have questioned how good the Bethel Test Fishery reflects the actual abundance of salmon that’s in the river.  Well, it’s only natural to question such a tool when major management decisions – decisions that affect everyone on the river – are based off the results.

Some have said that this time of year the white-nosed kings are traveling too deep for the test fishery to catch…and that may be true.  Others say that the high water affects the results – and that is true.  And there are other variables that come into play depending on the circumstances.

But earlier this year the Department showed how well over time that tool compared to the eventual real escapement numbers observed at the weirs – particularly the Kogrukluk weir 100 miles up the Holitna River.

Unfortunately, the Kuskokwim managers have very few real-time tools, and this for now is the best one; the ONC In-Season Harvest Surveys are conducted to help validate the Bethel Test Fishery.  But keep in mind that the BTF is only an index; in other words if there are few fish in the river the catch per unit effort, or CPUE, should be low and when the numbers are high the results should reflect that too.  Hopefully it does a reasonable  job for everything in between.

Very few, if any, management tools are perfect, and a test fishery does have it’s limitations.  One limitation, however, is not that it doesn’t catch as many fish as possible.  Because many people think it should, they often ask why fish where it does and why the same time of day – in regards to the tide.  The reason being that any defensible tool must be repeatable so that it can be compared to previous days, weeks and years.

One caller had concerns for the soon-to-be implemented 6″ mesh restriction, stating that too many fish would fall out of the nets and die, being no good to anyone.  Travis Elison, the ADF&G Acting Area Manager, noted that fall-out occurs no matter what size net is used – even the larger nets.  Travis said that many fish make it to the weirs with net marks, which shows that many fall-outs continue on and are able to spawn; that’s why the Department believes that restricting mesh size is a viable conservation measure.

Below are several pictures taken from various weirs showing salmon with net marks that have made it back to spawn.

Chum salmon exhibiting fungused head resulting from net marks.

Chinook salmon showing the results of earlier entanglement in a net

A sockeye salmon in the background that had once been entangled in a net on it's way up the Kuskokwim

Lastly was the topic of bycatch and the implications with the Chinook returns to the Kuskokwim.  Many people are under the belief that over 100,000 Chinook salmon are killed and wasted each year from the Bering Sea pollock fishery.  Since May 15 of this year, 7,772 Chinook salmon have been caught (all of which are not heading to the Kuskokwim or Yukon rivers).  Here’s information provided by the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association:

I think the main point to make is that of that 7,772, not all are Kuskokwim fish.  Unfortunately we still don’t have good estimates of just how many of those fish are Kuskokwim-bound.  Historical sampling for genetics has been inadequate.  In 2010, after improvements in genetics sampling, approximately 40% of the bycatch is estimated to be from coastal Western Alaska.  2011 estimates are not yet available, and we will need several years of estimates to fully understand how much the portion of the bycatch from coastal Western Alaska will vary year to year.  We also don’t know what proportion of coastal Western Alaskan stocks are Kuskokwim stocks, but this group includes all Chinook salmon stocks from Bristol Bay, Kuskokwim, the Yukon below the Tanana River, and Norton Sound.   At this point, all we can really say is that the bycatch number is made up of many different stocks, and only some of those fish would have gone to the Kuskokwim.

So keep in mind that there has been only one year when the bycatch has exceeded 100,000 Chinook salmon; other years, however, have been as high as 80,000 with most being under 60,000.  It is a shame to waste any fish, and in years with low returns like this that waste is extremely heinous.  But in the big scheme of things the bycatch is a relatively small player in the amount of fish we see  – or don’t see – returning to our rivers to catch for subsistence or to spawn.

We’ll discuss the ocean conditions that are a major player in regards to what we see coming back to the Kuskokwim in a later post.

Bethel Test Fish Numbers Climbing

The Bethel Test Fishery is showing that the run is indeed late but also weak.

Here are the numbers as of June 20th for Chinook.

Chinook Cumulative Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE)

Similarly the Sockeye are late in returning but increasing as expected:

Bethel Test Fish Sockeye CPUE for June 20th

And pretty much the same results for chums; note that the chums for now have one of the lowest CPUE’s compared to other years:

Chum Salmon CPUE As Of June 20th



Bethel Test Fishery Picked Up But Dropped Off

The Bethel Test Fishery saw an encouraging bump in Chinook salmon over the weekend but yesterday (the 18th) only saw one caught during their drifts.  As you can see from the numbers, thirteen kings were caught Saturday (11+13=24) and 9 on Sunday (24+9=33), but yesterday only saw one (33+1=34).

Unfortunately, the numbers are well below any previous years.

Bethel Test Fish Cumulative As Of June 18


For context – here are the numbers once again from the weir projects the past several years; it’s vital to know what returned to spawn each year an this is the highest priority that managers work towards.

Actual Escapement From The Weir Projects


What The Rolling Closure Means From Kalskag To Sleetmute

The rolling closure for the area between Kalskag and Chuathbaluk began 12:01 this morning (Sunday) and is expected to last for 12 days to allow for the salmon to pass by.

However, gill nets of 4″ or less mesh-size and 60′ or shorter in length can still be used; this is so people can use set nets for whitefish and other species.

The running closure for the area above Chuathbaluk up to the mouth of the Holitna begins this coming Friday, June 22nd, and is also expected to run for 12 days.  The same gear restrictions (4″ mesh less than 60′ long) will be in place for that section when the closure takes place.

If you have any questions you can call the ADF&G office in Bethel toll-free at 1-855-933-2433 during normal business hours to talk to a biologist.  After hours the recorded information is updated regularly to provide timely information.

First Bump Of Kings In Bethel Test Fishery

On Saturday the Bethel Test Fish crew caught its biggest jump of kings this season – 13.  Hopefully the numbers just continue to grow.

Keep in mind that the fish that come in first generally go the furthest upriver.

13 Chinook caught in yesterday's test fish nets

The rolling closure begins in Section 4 from Chuathbaluk to Sleetmute on Friday the 22nd.

The Rolling Closure Schedule For All Five Sections Of River

ADF&G Extends the Rolling Closures An Additional 5 Days

During the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group’s meeting on June 15th the Department of Fish & Game, along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, announced that they will extend the fishing closures another 5 days to help conserve the Chinook salmon this summer.

The run, although it appears to be late, also seems to be very weak; in fact the lowest on record…and that is after two successive poor years, when 2010 was the poorest on record.

The Working Group had proposed a 5-day opening to allow for some subsistence harvest since this is generally the best drying time for salmon.  However, the agencies noted that providing for adequate escapement is the highest priority, a management objective that AVCP, ONC and the Working Group previously supported.  The Department noted that there was no indication that any harvestable surplus what-so-ever was available.

The Working Group also proposed a gear restriction of 6” mesh or smaller during an opening, but the Department reiterated from previous meetings that this early in the season 6” gillnets actually harvest more Chinook.  The Department and Fish & Wildlife Service feel that by enacting another 5-day extension on the already existing 7-day closure that would ultimately allow for more chum and sockeye salmon to be harvested in the near future.

The meeting ended with the Department of Fish & Game immediately implementing the extra 5-day subsistence closure.

Most Working Group members were disappointed, and in fact, expressed displeasure that there was no window of opportunity for subsistence harvest of Chinook salmon.

The agencies that manage the fisheries must go with the best available information they have, which granted isn’t perfect.  I’m sure most people would agree, if anyone is to err, it’s best to do it on the side of the fish.  As Fritz Charles said at the previous Working Group meeting,  “I want my grandchild’s grandchildren to fish for Chinook 40 years from now.”

According to the Bethel Test Fishery this is how dire the Chinook run is:

Graph showing relatively few fish caught in the Bethel Test Fishery

(While Nick Kameroff was captaining his barge past Napaimute he noted that the much of the early run is comprised of the white-nosed kings that tend to run much deeper than the remainder of the run – so he did question how valid the numbers were this early in the run)

This graph shows this year’s Test Fishery numbers compared to the previous four years.  Remember that 2010 had been the lowest year on record, but 2011 wasn’t much better; note that none of the previous four years met the Department’s escapement goals (verified by the weir data in the later table).

The graph’s numbers on the left correspond to how many fish have been caught so far or by a particular date – so by this time the past few years, even the low run of 2010 had many more fish than caught this year.  Obviously this can indicate a late run, but more than likely it’s showing a weak run.  In fact, most years exhibiting a late run tended to be on the weaker side.  As you can see, this year we’re pretty much flat-lined at a very low number as far as the Catch Per Unit Effort.

Here’s a different way of showing the Bethel Test Fish numbers over the last 9 years:

Bethel Test Fish Cumulative Results As Of June 15

Once again here are the escapement numbers the past five years.

Escapement The Previous 5 Years From Weir Data

Keep in mind that the 5-day restriction – or any for that matter – can be rescinded if the assessment tools determine that the run is adequate.

A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE IS THAT over the past few months both agencies, as well as the Working Group and other local organizations, have publically promoted the use of other more abundant fish species (e.g., chums & sockeye) as a conservation measure.

However, during ONC’s in-season harvest surveys at least one family reportedly stopped fishing recently because they, “were catching too many sheefish”.  But isn’t that the type of sacrifice that is needed if we want to conserve the Chinook?

One topic of discussion in which great frustration was expressed was that of sport fishing in the tributaries – specifically those that weren’t closed going into the season.  The tributaries closed several months ago through an Emergency Order include  the George, Aniak, Tuluksak, Kisaralik, Kasigluk and Kwethluk rivers; the three not closed are Holokuk, Oskwalik, and Holitna.

John Chythlook (ADF&G Sport Fish) noted that the Department released an Emergency Order this past Wednesday (13th) that reduced the sport fish limit to one Chinook in those tributaries still open.  The EO, however, also closed the mainstem of the Kuskokwim to all sport fishing for Chinook salmon.  This would include the area right in front of Aniak along the dike as well as the popular confluences of the Owhut and Holokuk rivers.

Mark Leary and others pointed out that sport fishers could still fish the Holokuk and Oskwalik rivers while subsistence fishers were unable to fish.  John Chythlook stated that if the numbers show that the run hasn’t improved by the time sport fishing gears up it is likely that they will likely close all tributaries to sport fishing for Chinook salmon.


Still No Chinook Caught In The Bethel Test Fishery The Past Few Days

Here are the data for the Bethel Test Fishery as of June 13 – the cumulative still stands at 6.  This is not a good sign!


Bethel Test Fish CPUE as of June 13


Here’s a reminder of what the escapements were over the years at the weir projects:

Note how low the previous two years' numbers were.