ADF&G, USFWS and the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group Implement Rolling Closure Schedule

For the first time ever in the Kuskokwim restrictions will be implemented before any large pulse of Chinook salmon have entered the river.  Beginning 12:01 AM Sunday morning on June 10 there will be a 7-day subsistence closure for Chinook salmon for the most downstream section of river (i.e., from the regulatory marker below the Johnson River on downstream – see attached map).  This closure is part of a recently implemented rolling closure schedule, and fishing in that lower section is scheduled to re-open on June 17 at 12:01 AM.  Nets of 4-inch mesh and less and shorter than 60 feet long will still be allowed during the closed period; this is to allow fishermen to catch whitefish and other important subsistence fishes.

Fishers in Section 2 (i.e., just below the Johnson River up to Tuluksak) will have to cease fishing at 12:01 AM on Wednesday, June 13, which does overlap the Section 1 closure.

The rolling closures will progress upstream into the remaining three sections of river unless the run turns out to be much stronger than anticipated.  As is the case with any management decision, they can be rescinded depending on the circumstances.  For updates and scheduling check with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (543-2433), look for news releases or listen to the radio and other news sources as to when upstream closures or changes will occur.

Rolling Closure Sections 1-5 (ADF&G Photo)

The rolling closure schedule was the recommendation of the Department of Fish and Game and the Fish and Wildlife Service and supported by the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group.  Co-Chair Bev Hoffman noted that it was a heavy decision for every Working Group member.

Fritz Charles said that everyone up and down the Kuskokwim had a sore heart knowing the implications for such a drastic decision, but he knew that the tough decision was for everybody’s benefit in the long run.  Fritz quoted the late Iana Gusty who often said, “We have to work together no matter who we are”.  He noted how Iana, at every meeting, would say this, especially when the hardships affected everyone.  Fritz, with apprehension in his voice, stated that as much as he didn’t want to vote yes on the recommendation that we all have to live with it and “I want my grandchild’s grandchildren to fish for Chinook 40 years from now.”

When the vote was tallied it was a unanimous decision to support the Department’s recommendation to implement the rolling closures.  Ray Collins from McGrath and Western Interior RAC member representative said that he was proud of the Working Group to make such a tough decision and that since it was unanimous that that made him feel that it was a demonstration of how the people of the Kuskokwim work together and “look to the future and do what we can”.

Why seven days and not three or four?  If you recall, beginning in 2001 and running for several years, subsistence fishing was allowed only 4 days a week – being closed for three consecutive days.  However, looking back those “windows” actually proved inadequate to protect the fish.  The intent of the “windows” was to 1) reduce the proportion of Chinook salmon harvest in the early season and improve the number of upriver fish returning to spawn 2) protect those fish coming in first which tend to travel the furthest upriver to tributaries around McGrath and beyond (these are not the tributaries that produce high numbers of Chinook like the Holitna, Aniak or Kwethluk rivers), and 3) extend the number of days in which the number of fish were harvested; in other words spread out the catch.

Catch calendar data, however, showed that the “windows” were ineffective at accomplishing any of those objectives.  In essence, those 3-day periods basically only changed people’s behavior to where everyone fished extra hard right up until the closure and immediately once it re-opened.  Based on radio tracking studies conducted several years ago it was determined that the average Chinook travels about 13 or 14 miles per day, so it could take a week or more for a fish through a section; hence the reasoning for the full 7-day closure as well as several days of overlap from one section to the next.  The intent of the rolling closures is to give a substantial block of fish the best chance to get to the spawning grounds with as little fishing pressure as possible.

What was so compelling that forced the Working Group members to make such a hard decision?  The basis for the closure is the apparent weak run that has been noted in subsistence reports by area fishermen and the Bethel Test Fishery results.  Downriver subsistence fishermen like James Charles conveyed that his family and other Tuntatuliak residents were catching very few fish; Henry Lupie confirmed the poor fishing.  Charlie Brown of Eek said that he only knew of a few jack kings that have been caught.  Iana Gusty Jr. said that ONC surveyed six families who were fishing but only one family reported catching king salmon.  Mike Williams noted that the water was high near Akiak and that set nets were picking up two or three kings.

Because the Bethel Test Fishery (BTF) is such an important tool in the decision making process, it’s imperative that people understand just how it works and how the numbers are used.  The BTF keeps a running total of the cumulative catch throughout the season; these numbers are often referred to the catch per unit effort or CPUE.  Every time a fish is caught it is added to the previous running total of fish caught.  For example, lets say we’re members of the test fish crew and we went out the very first day (example – June 1) and didn’t catch any, then the cumulative at the end of day one is zero.  Then if we went out the next day and caught two – the cumulative at the end of that day is two.  If the next day we catch five – then our cumulative is seven (0+2+5)…and so on through the season.

Lets look at this year’s numbers so far:

Bethel Test Fish Cumulative Numbers As Of June 9

As of June 9th only three fish have been caught.  Look back to the last two years when total river escapement goals were not met – by the same date in 2011 sixty-seven fish were caught and in 2010 eleven fish were caught.  We are well below those numbers!

Now look at what the cumulative number was in 2003 on the 6th of June – 106 Chinook had been caught.  Granted the run may be late this year, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that that is the case.  Unfortunately, the Department pointed out that in previous years when the run was late it generally wasn’t very strong.

People often ask why the Fish and Game crew fishes the same spot each time and why not go where the fish are?  They also ask why not hunt for the fish and try to catch as many as possible like a subsistence or commercial fisherman would?  In order to be used as a scientific tool, it must be repeatable – meaning that the information can be compared to the previous day, the previous week and even previous years.

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that easy because nature, as we all know, is highly variable.  The biologists know that in some years fish are less susceptible to being caught because the water is much clearer and they shy away from the net.  Or maybe there is a lot of rain in one particular year and high water makes the fish harder to catch because the fish are scattered across a much larger area.  So they do their best to assess the run strength by considering those, and other, variables.  But the key point to remember is that this tool must be as consistent as possible; that’s why they fish the same place and same period of day in regards to the tide from year to year.

As dire as things seem, and this is no consolation for the hardships that people will face this summer, but one must look back to possibly predict the future.  Below is a graph showing the total in-river escapement, or what returned to spawn, over the past 36 years.  Most of you will likely recall the low runs of the mid eighties and late nineties and even 2000.  But look at the following four or five years where the escapements rebounded quite nicely.  There certainly seems to be some sort of a cycle happening…doesn’t there?  There are so many things that may (example – ocean conditions) – or may not – explain the fluctuations; but we’ll leave them for a later discussion.

Total Estimated In-River Escapement The Past 36 Years In The Kuskokwim (ADF&G)

The green horizontal line represents the years the escapement was below 127,000 which is 44 % of the last 36 years, while the red line indicates when the escapement was below 87,000 – that was 19% of the time.

Please don’t hesitate to call the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Bethel at 543-2433 or the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge at 543-3151 if you have any questions.  You can also call me at 675-4443 or 676-0012 (my cell).

 

 

June 6 – Second Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group Synopsis

It was noted at the beginning of the meeting that a few kings are being caught in the lower portion of the river below Bethel.  The Bethel Test Fishery, which is used as an indicator of run strength and will be the major real-time tool used to determine if any management actions are taken, has caught two Chinook so far.  Here are the results to date of the Bethel Test Fishery compared to previous years.

Early Results of the Bethel Test Fishery

Daniel Esai of Nicolai said that last year the first Chinook was caught on June 7th.  He noted that one year someone caught one as early as May 31; obviously, there is great variation from year to year.  Over ten years ago Sally Hoffman caught a Chinook in the Aniak River while ice fishing in April!

As far as salmon enumeration projects the only weir currently in is the Kwethluk, but it hasn’t caught any yet…which is normal.  The Kwethluk weir actually has to be installed in April, otherwise that water is usually too high this time of year to get it in.  All the other weir projects are currently being installed.

Steve Miller with the Fish & Wildlife Service in Bethel said that they will be collecting tissue samples this summer in and around Bethel and McGrath to assess the extent of the ichthyophonus disease; something that has been fairly common in the Yukon River fish over the years.  So keep your eyes out for pale flesh with nodules or irregular spots or bumps.  If you come across any suspicious fish, call the Bethel FWS office at 543-3151 or Ken Harper in Kenai at 800-822-6550.

Nodules in liver of Chinook salmon

 

Spotting of Chinook fillet

After a week of deliberations the Department and the Fish & Wildlife Service have agreed to use a total in-river escapement of 127,279 as an objective for management purposes going into this season.  That number corresponds to almost 9,000 Chinook escaping into the Kogrukluk River on the upper Holitna.  Unfortunately, by the time anyone knows what the actual escapement on the Kogrukluk, or any weir, is – it’s too late to make any real-time decisions; that’s why fish management is so difficult.

It is possible that in order to make that level of Kuskokwim-wide escapement that everyone in the drainage will have to sacrifice in these times of low returns.  And it is possible that those sacrifices may begin this coming Sunday with what’s called rolling closures which would first be implemented downstream of Bethel and then progress upriver.

The entire river has been divided up into five sections that will have overlapping closure times in order to give a particular group of fish the best chance of making it upriver to the spawning grounds with the least amount of pressure.  Fish run timing was taken into consideration since past studies have shown the swimming speed for a Kuskokwim Chinook averages about 13-14 miles per day.

Section 1 is downstream of Bethel, then Section 2 goes from below Bethel up to Tuluksak.  Section 3 runs from Tuluksak to Chuathbaluk.  Napaimute is in the 4th section which goes from Chuathbaluk to Sleetmute; everything beyond that is the 5th section.

The most downstream section below Bethel, being the first one to be closed, will have a minimum of 24 hours notice.  We in Section 4 will have plenty of notice as to when our closure will begin; it will take effect 5 days after Section 3’s begins.  Keep in mind that when the closure is in place there will be no rod and reel fishing either in the name of subsistence or sport fishing for Chinook salmon.

Depending on how poor the run is, there could be more than one closure period in a particular section; this would likely apply to downriver sections where escapements in the lower tributaries like the Tuluksak and Kwethluk rivers are of great concern.

If you have any questions you can call ADF&G in Bethel at 543- 2433 or E-mail me at dcannonnapaimuteed@earthlink.net

Chinook Salmon Conservation Poster

With the advent of low Chinook salmon numbers returning to the Kuskokwim the past few years and the similar low projections expected for this coming season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game along with Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group have agreed to begin the season by closing the Aniak and George rivers for rod and reel fishing for substance and sport fishing.

Consequently, there will likely be increased fishing pressure, most likely from sport fishermen, at the mouths of the Owhut and Holokuk rivers that would put additional stress on the reduced numbers of fish returning to spawn.  Napaimute’s environmental department made the included poster in hopes of encouraging others to minimize the stress incurred on those returning fish.

Those closures and this conservation poster are contingent upon another year of low returns.  However, if the run is stronger than expected and closer to normal, the Aniak and George River closures will be lifted.

There was a Salmon Management Working Group meeting this morning (the 6th) to assess management actions, but it is a little to early since the Bethel test fishery only has a few days of information.  The Working Group will meet again this Friday.  If the run is low, it is possible that subsistence regulations for rolling closures could go into effect this coming Sunday from a point downstream of Bethel to the mouth of the Kuskokwim.

I will write a post shortly that discusses what went on at today’s meeting and explaining the potential rolling closures.

This poster - if necessary - will be placed at the mouths of the Owhut & Holokuk rivers.

Kuskokwim-Wide Invasive Species Concerns

Invasive species are a concern throughout Alaska – whether they be the terrestrial kind like troublesome orange hawkweed or other rapidly spreading invasive plants, tunicates found in salt water near Sitka or the freshwater waterweed (i.e., Elodea) rapidly expanding in the Chena Slough area near Fairbanks.

For that reason the Native Village of Napaimute and the Kuskokwim River Water Council have come up with a poster that will be posted locally in the villages and regional float plane lakes; it will also be sent to all the guides and outfitters that bring out-of-state clients to the Kuskokwim tributaries who have the potential for bringing an unwanted invasive to the region.

Here is a letter sent to the outfitters and guides:

Hello ,

My name is Dave Cannon and I’m the Environmental Director for the Native Village of Napaimute located on the Kuskokwim River about 30 miles upriver of Aniak.

Several years ago I was the Invasive Plant Coordinator for the middle Yukon-Kuskokwim Region but prior to that I was mostly involved with fish issues since I’m a fish biologist.  I learned that not too long ago most Alaskan botanists didn’t think invasive plants were a big concern due to our remoteness and severe climate.  Unfortunately, they know differently now.  My exposure to the world of invasive plants really opened my eyes as to just how problematic invasives can be – even here in the more the more remote parts of the state.  Of particular concern is reed canarygrass that has the potential to reduce salmon spawning habitat.

Having worked in the lower 48, I was familiar with whirling disease that was prevalent in Colorado, Montana and other Western states as well as the typical hatchery related diseases (e.g., BKD or bacterial kidney disease) since I worked at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming prior to being the fish biologist for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Bethel.

There are numerous ongoing efforts to minimize the threats.  While in Bethel I participated in a National Wild Fish Health Survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where we collected baseline tissue samples on rainbow trout in the Kisaralik River; this study was partly driven by the concern over whirling disease.  Fortunately, no diseases were found at that time.

I probably don’t have to dwell then on what the concerns are, but in one Montana study 40% of the anglers did not clean their equipment between uses (Gates et al. 2006).  In another study on aquatic invasive species transport via trailered boats,the authors found that although fishing guides moved among waterways with a greater frequency than anyone else, they often employed less-than-ideal boat cleaning practices…mostly due to inconvenience.

It is our hope that everyone involved will take the extra time to reduce the threat of introducing unwanted organisms to the Kuskokwim drainage so that we never have to deal with such things as whirling disease, rock snot or Elodea (a type of a water weed).  I’ve attached a poster in pdf format expressing our concern and suggestions for ways to minimize the potential for unwanted introductions.

Here are some simple guidelines to follow above and beyond what’s on the poster: 

CLEAN     DRAIN     DRY

 CLEAN – Rinse and remove all visible mud, plants, fish/animals from boats, trailers, float plane rudders and floats, and gear

 DRAIN – Drain water from coolers, floats, bilge pumps, buckets, and wring out gear before leaving the boat launch or fishing area 

DRY – Completely dry equipment and gear between visits to different waterbodies

 *Never release plants, water, fish, or animals into a body of water*

Please feel free to E-mail or call me if you have any questions.  If you would like a printed version of the poster to display in a prominent location please contact me and we’ll send one out.  Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

Dave Cannon

Environmental Director

Native Village of Napaimute for the Kuskokwim Watershed Council

P.O. Box 355, Aniak, AK 99557

(907) 675-4443 © 676-0012

REFERENCES

Gates, K. K., K. Meehan, and C. S. Guy. 2006. Angler movement patterns and the spread of whirling disease in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, Sacramento, California. Available: www.wou.edu/pacifica. (February 2007).

Rothlisberger, J.D., W.L. Chadderton, J. McNulty, and D.M. Lodge. 2010.  Aquatic invasive species transport via trailered boats: What is being moved, who is moving it, and what can be done.  Fisheries 35 (3): 121-132.

Page 1 Help Keep Aquatic Invasives Out Of The Kuskokwim

Page 2 of the poster

May 30 – First Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group Meeting

The Department of Fish & Game discussed some changes going into this season as far as projects they have going and their plans on managing the salmon going into this upcoming season.

A surprise to me, and to many, is that the Department will no longer operate the Aniak sonar project which is, or has been, the 2nd longest running project in the drainage; the Kogrukluk weir on the upper Holitna has been around since 1976.  The Aniak sonar was put in in 1980.

The reason it won’t be operated anymore is two-fold.  First, money for projects is getting tight, and this project never provided hard numbers.  Since it couldn’t differentiate between species very well, it only gave what is considered an index.  The Department tried to speciate by drifting a gill net in the area, but that couldn’t effectively work the deeper water.  So it was generally assumed the chums comprised the bulk of the run in the Aniak…and no doubt that is true – especially when in some years over 1 million return.

With time technology has improved, and newer equipment was able to differentiate between salmon sized fishes and very small fish, but still precision was lacking.

Keep that in mind when you think about managing the Yukon River salmon runs and the Pilot Station sonar.  I’m not saying that that system shouldn’t be used, because at times a manager has to use the best tool that is available, even if it’s not totally reliable.  At least on the Yukon they have other tools further upriver that they can judge the results of the sonar against.

The Department decided that their money would be well spent if they put a weir upstream on the Salmon River where they could get hard numbers for all salmon species.  There was a weir there beginning in 2006 that ran for about four years; one ADF&G biologist and myself operated it the first year it was in place.

Management Scenarios

The State has a projection of about 197,000 Chinook that they anticipate will return to the drainage this year.  They have been working on what’s called a run reconstruction for Chinook salmon with all the previous years’ data from all the projects.  It’s their best guess as to what the runs were like years ago and what we’ve got now.  In some years it’s estimated that as high as 300,000 or more Chinook have come back.

The Department considers the subsistence harvest to be about 70,000 a year.  As a part of the run reconstruction, they also attempt to come up with a drainage-wide escapement number that they believe would provide for sustainable returns.

They then work with those two numbers (subsistence needs + escapement needs) and determine whether or not there is a harvestable surplus for commercial fishing.

Here’s where things get – or got – interesting yesterday.

There is a pretty good disagreement as to what the Fish & Wildlife Service thinks should be coming back as far as total escapement throughout the drainage.  The State figured around 87,000 but the FWS is inclined to think that that number should be around 133,000…quite a difference.

This difference of opinion goes back many years, in fact ten or more from back when I was the biologist for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

The State uses a computer model to look at past returns, and then the returns years later from those returns; it’s called a spawner-recruit model.  In places like Bristol Bay where they’ve been collecting data for 80 or more years, that can work pretty well.  But in places like the Kuskokwim where we have very limited data, it may not be any better than the sonar up the Aniak!

The Department pretty much goes with that model’s results, where the Fish & Wildlife Service believes that other ecological considerations should be considered.   The problem is trying to incorporate those things into a model…definitely not easy.  The FWS believes that the flesh, eggs, etc. that are eaten by so many animals (including young salmon) need to be considered into the mix, as well as the importance of the marine derived nutrients that salmon bring back with them.  Therefore, the FWS has always promoted more salmon returning.

When you look at the weir project numbers that are on the included Chinook Salmon Conservation poster, you can see that the past few years the escapement numbers for the Tuluksak and Kwethluk rivers is way down.  This is another reason the FWS would like to see higher escapement numbers to help build those populations back up.

How does that difference of opinion fit into this coming season’s management?  Lets go back to the projection that ADF&G believes will come back this year – 197,000.  If the subsistence needs are 70,000 and the escapement necessary (ADF&G’s number) is 87,000 – then there would be a harvestable surplus that could potentially be fished on; not that the Department would take the remaining 40,000 (197,000 – ((70,000+87,000)).  But they are hoping to fish on the chums knowing that there would be an incidental harvest of probably less than 1,000 Chinook.  Keep in mind that the decision makers are from the Commercial Fisheries Division – it’s their job to provide a fishery when fish are available.

BUT – if the Fish and Wildlife Service believes that 133,000 need to come back just for escapement alone, then that changes the harvestable surplus…or eliminates it in this case (70,000 + 133,000 is more than the expected 197,000).  So that now changes the Department’s management options.

In this scenario there couldn’t be a chum fishery until after all the kings went by…which is too late for the processor.  The processor needs to plan ahead knowing that he has some sort of a guarantee.

In deliberations earlier this week with the FWS the Department compromised in a sense and are considering 120,000 necessary for escapement; but depending on how accurate their projection is that doesn’t leave much room for a harvestable surplus if little more than 197,000 returned.  If less than that come back escapement won’t be met.

Keep in mind that all this is based off the one in-season tool that’s available – the Bethel Test Fishery.

And this got the Working Group concerned.  Lets go back to the State’s original escapement number of 87,000.  If 197,000 Chinook did show up – or was a little lower than that – the State wouldn’t anticipate any subsistence restrictions…at least not right off the bat.

As the run progressed and it turned out to be very weak, then rolling closures would likely be implemented with them starting at the mouth and working upstream.  If things were really bad, we in Napaimute would see a 7-day period closed at sometime; we would have at least a week or more notice as to when that would happen.  The closer to Kuskokwim Bay the shorter the notice would be.

But if the State conceded and went with the 133,000 escapement and the Bethel Test Fishery shows very few fish, then subsistence restrictions in the form of that rolling closure would kick in almost immediately for the downstream-most villages.

That would set off a panic situation much like last year…and no one wants that.  The Working Group and ADF&G will be trying to get the message out over various media outlets that there is a likelihood that sacrifices may be necessary this year in hopes that if closures are warranted, that people won’t be blind sided.

So at this time the State and feds haven’t come to consensus.  They will, however, be deliberating all this next week and try to find common ground by next Wednesday’s meeting that will disrupt as few people as possible.  Either way, be prepared for a weaker than normal run.

Notes From The 2012 Alaska Forum On The Environment

I attended the Alaska Forum on the Environment the week of Feb. 6-10, and here is a list of the sessions attended with some notes describing their pertinence.  Besides attending the sessions, the networking was very beneficial.  I was also able to meet with several federal employees that I’ve been working with concerning several of our projects.

On Wednesday I met with Ryan Maroney with NRCS and discussed the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) projects and our plans to fulfill our obligations with the timber harvest scheduled over the next few months.  Ryan suggested we fill out an application for the high tunnels where NRCS would reimburse us for a portion of the cost (Unfortunately we were not awarded the Community Environmental Demonstration Grant that I submitted a proposal for).  We are hoping to grow our own seedlings in the high tunnel that will then be planted as part of our EQIP obligation.  Ryan said he has been in touch with Fritz Grenfell from Bethel who is growing some test seedlings in Bethel this winter.

AK Forum sessions I attended:

  • Realities of Kinetic Hydropower on Most of the Yukon River.  This was a good session because there have been several attempts to test hydropower in Ruby, Eagle and in the Tanana River.  All systems were hampered by woody debris, but the one in the Tanana (which was featured in this session) was affected least because it worked very much like a fish wheel; the others worked on a vertical axis and operated several feet further down in the water column.  The Tanana unit was fabricated on-site with local materials and quite sturdy compared to the pre-fabbed turbines.

I discussed the pro’s and cons of each type of turbine with Martin Leonard who actually worked on the Ruby turbine while working with the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.  Martin, from Bethel, has worked all across the state on various renewable energy projects (e.g., wind, hydro & solar).  He knows, and introduced me to, several of the players with whom I submitted a recent proposal to; one acquaintance was Brian Hirsch with the U.S. Dept. of Energy/Office of Indian Energy.

  • Mining & Water QualityAcid rock drainage and dissolved metals.

Bob Loeffler with UAA, previously with DNR, discussed the various methods/techniques the mining industry uses to address potential acid drainage concerns.  One of the statements I picked up on was that liners are not forever.  Hmmm.  He also said that the state has never permitted any mines where the water will have to be monitored for perpetuity.  But it seems that several proposed mines may fall into that category…including Donlin.

  • Hazardous Waste Identification and Handling for Rural Alaska Villages

Two EPA employees described how to identify, categorize, consolidate, package and ship hazardous wastes.

  • Aggressive Plants, Fish & Sea Squirts: Invasive Species in Fresh & Salt Water

One aquatic invasive plant – Elodea – has been documented in three Anchorage lakes, including Sand Lake, which is used by floatplanes (it’s only a matter of time before they transport it to some remote location).  It’s also thick in and around Chena Slough in Fairbanks and in one lake near Cordova.  This is not good!  ADF&G is working hard (and spending quite a bit of $$) to reduce the pike that have been introduced on the Kenai Peninsula.  They have altered ecosystems by consuming most, if not all, sticklebacks and greatly reduced rainbow trout and salmon populations.  ADF&G is focusing on a few lakes where a unique strain of Arctic char resides.

  • Renewable Energy in Rural Alaska

Brian Hirsch (see kinetic energy discussion) presented along with Meera Kohler with AVEC (Alaska Village Electric Cooperative).   Moderating this session was the Deputy Secretary of the Dept. of Interior.  One of the main challenges of energy producers on the road system is tying their systems into the grid.  So far, we don’t have to worry about that.  Maintenance of systems in rural Alaska is a problem, mostly because of a lack of expertise.  However, Martin Leonard has been training local specialists.

  • Scenes From Coming Attractions: Mineral Explorers and Developers

Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse with NovaGold & a biologist with the Pebble Partnership gave presentations.  Van Nieuwenhuyse spoke mostly about the Ambler development up north.  I asked him what the potential was for smaller operations being more viable once the Donlin project builds much of the non-existent infrastructure (I was referring to the Holokuk and Buckstock/Aniak drainages).  He said that he wasn’t aware of any promising exploration work.  I also asked about the need for limestone at Donlin to offset the acid generating waste rock, and he said that they would likely bring it in from off-site.  I asked if the Holitna was a possible source and he insinuated that it wasn’t likely.

  • GPS Mapping For Geographical Information Systems on a Budget

I learned some tricks that will help with the biological monitoring and physical habitat quantification of the Holokuk River.

  • Water Quality Sampling in Rural Alaska

I talked with Ryan Toohey (PhD with Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council – one of the presenters) about our past data collection efforts from the Kuskokwim and various tribs (including the Holokuk).  I’ll be sending him the data to see whether or not we’ll be able to use any of it (if you recall, our meter wasn’t properly functioning much of the time).

  • Mercury In The Environment – An Introduction to Sources, Exposure and Health in Alaska

I attended several sessions on mercury (just prior to the Forum I submitted a proposal to monitor mercury deposition in the village).  Although we are getting mercury from Asian coal-fired power plants and are dealing with the remnants of the Kolmakof and Red Devil mines, not all mercury is harmful.  It is only when it is methylated, and the methylation process is not fully understood; that’s when bacteria acts on inorganic mercury to turn it into organic.  There is an ongoing study in the Yukon River drainage assessing the mercury levels, and one location where it was found was in an old dredged stream channel.  The presenter, a USGS scientist, believed that the dredging activity contributed to the triggering of the methylation process.  This has me wondering what levels of methyl mercury might be found in the area around NYAC.

The recent fish consumption advisories of the middle Kuskokwim resulting from the Red Devil study on pike and lush were discussed.

  • Shaping Fisheries: Skills for Participating in the Public Process

This session discussed public involvement in the management of fisheries.

  • Climate, Game Management & Subsistence Hunting

This session started out with a background previous predator control efforts by the state and Fish & Wildlife Service over the past 35 years.  Years ago there were bounties on Dolly Varden and hawks – things that would never fly now.  Then changes in wind patterns was looked at for disrupting subsistence opportunities in the Wainwright area.

  • EPA Region 10 Tribal Program and Funding Opportunities

This session provided an introduction to EPA and Region 10’s Tribal Program, and an overview of the agency’s grant programs.

  • Mercury, Permafrost, and Climate Change

Large stores of mercury are bound up in the permafrost from natural sources (e.g., volcanoes and forest fires) as well as far away human sources (e.g., Eurasian coal-fired power plants).  With climate change much of that mercury is being exposed and has the potential of being methylated and getting into the food chain.  I had really wished I had attended these presentations prior to submitting my mercury-monitoring proposal two weeks ago!

  • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Partnership Project

The NRCS has worked with several Alaska tribes in forming Tribal Conservation Districts – Kwethluk being one of them.  These Districts are a way of devising a comprehensive plan to preserve and enhance the natural resources of the area and sustain the traditional subsistence way of life.  This may be something that Napaimute would like to pursue in the future, although we are already pretty much doing that.

  • What’s Happening at Red Devil Mine?  A Talking Circle For Interested Kuskokwim Communities

This was a well-attended meeting, with people from up and down the Kuskokwim as well as representatives from Calista, Donlin Gold and DEC (Dept. of Environmental Conservation) being present.  The BLM (Jim Fincher, Mike McCrum and Matt Varner) gave an overview of where things stand today, and what we can expect for possible remediation and public meetings.  One Calista geologist was very interested in knowing how the state devised the fish consumption advisories, and how the levels in local fish compared to other Kuskokwim fish and tuna in the oceans that also have high levels of mercury.   

  • Friday – Film Festival

On Friday morning I attended the film festival and watch movies about changing environmental conditions due to climate change and their affects on Alaskan’s subsistence way life, marine debris scattered about the oceans, the village of Craig that has been conducting a successful campaign with collecting washed up debris, and local village efforts to improve landfills and address other local environmental issues.

On Friday afternoon I attended a tele-symposium at UAA titled: A synchronous failure of juvenile Pacific salmon and herring in the Strait of Georgia and the poor return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River in 2009.  Dick Beamish, a highly respected Canadian scientist, was in Juneau presenting information on the problems in the Fraser River.  The Fraser River is a huge producer of salmon and one that is not highly impacted from dams like the Columbia River is.  However, it has seen numerous developmental activities that have affected the salmon runs.  Besides typical land development, there are also aquaculture activities nearby that have some concerned that sea lice and the concomitant control efforts might have some negative influence on salmon.

Like the Kuskokwim and our king numbers, there are fluctuations in salmon populations occurring that are not readily explained.  Much of the unknowns do occur in the ocean, although some research is shedding light on what might be the causes.

 

Dave Cannon

Environmental Director

Notes From The March AVCP Salmon Summit

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.

ADF&G Kuskokwim Commercial Fisheries Division Graph

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.

Kate Myers, School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, University of Washington (Ret.)

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!

Kate Myers, School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, University of Washington (Ret.)

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).

ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Division Graph

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.

ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Division Table

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.

ADF&G Commercial Fisheries Division Graph

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.

 

Dave Cannon

Environmental Director

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pros and Cons Of Large-Scale Mining In The Kuskokwim

Nova Gold recently made the announcement that they, along with Barrick, would soon be submitting the Permit Application to the State of Alaska to move the Donlin Gold project forward to the next stage.  It’s anyone’s guess just how long the permitting process will take, but being such a large project it could possibly take four years or more.  In the announcement it’s stated that the construction phase would employ 2,000 people while the operating mine would employ between 500 and 800 for over twenty years.

We’ve all seen how Donlin Gold has strived to hire locally, and the mine will no doubt employ many people up and down the Kuskokwim as well as friends and family from over on the Yukon.  But a workforce that large will also bring workers from afar – not that that’s bad; it’ll just be more people, some of which will likely compete for subsistence resources.  Unfortunately, some of those resources may be on the decline.  Think back to this past summer that was the second poorest return on record for Chinook salmon – last year being the worst.  Remember those controversial closures down river?  Keep in mind that Bethel is not getting any smaller, either.

You can’t expect that many more people inhabiting and traveling in a relatively small area and not change the complexion of the region.  Change will come.  Another form of change, climate change, is just one other uncertainty that may influence the salmon runs…and not in a positive way.

There’s a lot of economic benefit from such a project; no one can deny that.  And some social workers, as well as a local magistrate, have told me that they’ve seen a decline in some of the more common social problems that exist in the region…and that’s great.  Yes, certain benefits are a given.

But as the cliché goes, there are no free lunches.  Something I’ve witnessed is the glossing over of the project’s potential environmental impacts and attempts to stifle those who have expressed concern for the project at several local gatherings.  Whether for the Donlin project or the controversial Pebble project in Bristol Bay, mining proponents have repeatedly stated that critics should not express their concerns until the permits are applied for and the specifics are known.  That sounds reasonable…at least on the surface until one digs a little deeper (I guess that pun was intended).

For many years both Donlin and Pebble ads have routinely attempted to allay any fears that such proposed development might induce.  The following quote is from Pebble’s CEO, Bruce Jenkins, in a letter addressed directly to me back in 2007.  I have no idea how he got my name, other than I wrote a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Daily News several months prior to receiving his letter.  Here’s what Mr. Jenkins had to say, “This may seem like a lot of work and a long timeline, but the Pebble Project wouldn’t do it any other way.  The time we’re taking now to gather information about land, water fish and wildlife resources in the Bristol Bay area will ensure that we can protect these important environmental values and traditional ways of life in the future.

Just look in any of the recent Delta Discovery editions and you’ll find similar propaganda.  Each week something like the following appears, “Once Donlin Gold removes all equipment and buildings during reclamation, nearby streams and land will be monitored for years to ensure the environmental integrity of the region.

You can insure just about anything these days, especially through Lloyd’s of London for the right amount of money, but there are very few things in life that anyone can ensure…especially water quality when you have such large-scale land disturbance associated with surface and ground waters.

I’ve collected a lot of baseline information over the years in places like Idaho and Wyoming, and quite often the best it can do is only provide us with something to lament over.  I’m not opposed to economic opportunities for people of the region and certainly not for providing for one’s family; everyone just needs to understand that there will be trade-offs.

My biggest concern for the development of the Donlin Creek project, however, goes beyond that mine itself.  Because the Donlin project is so large, much of the currently non-existent infrastructure will be in place which would then allow less economically feasible operations to be much more viable.

I’m sure you’re aware that there’s been a substantial amount of exploration throughout the Kuskokwim including the Holitna, Holukuk and Aniak drainages, just to name a few.  I don’t need to tell you that the Aniak and the Holitna are the two biggest producers of salmon in the Kuskokwim.   The more activities that occur Kuskokwim wide, the more potential there is for individual mishaps and overall cumulative effects to occur.  That’s just a given.

I’ve done my best over the years to maintain my objectivity over the Donlin project, even to the consternation of some local “environmentalists”.  But issues need to be addressed and people must know that just because there will soon be an extensive Environmental Impact Statement (or study) conducted, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any significant impacts.

Am I alone as a concerned biologist over such things?  Not hardly.

Why would thirty-six highly regarded scientists write to British Columbia’s highest official expressing concern?  It’s because of the inherent consequences associated with any large-scale development, especially the cumulative effects.

Are we here in the Kuskokwim anywhere near that level of development?  No, not hardly…but not yet, anyway.  All I want is for the people of this region to make informed decisions and not be duped by the bombardment of assurances with terms like ensure.

I’ll go back to the Delta Discovery once again to an advertisement that was placed three years ago following the unsuccessful and highly controversial Ballot Measure #4 that opposed large-scale mining.  Personally, I did not vote for the measure for various reasons, but I cannot agree with the full-page ad that said, “Guyana for your No votes on Prop 4.  Clean water, fish and prosperity – we can have it all.”

Once again – THERE ARE NO FREE LUNCHES.

 

Dave Cannon

Environmental Director