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.

Bethel Test Fish Update As Of June 12 – Things Aren’t Looking Good

Here are the Bethel Test Fish cumulative numbers as of Tuesday.  As you can see, very few fish have been caught.

As it stands, only two Chinook have been caught since the 10th (the numbers are running cumulative totals).

CPUE stands for Catch Per Unit Effort

Bethel Test Fish Numbers As Of June 12

A Closer Look At How Certain Data Are Used In Fisheries Management

Prior to each meeting members of the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group are provided a packet of material with various information or data that is used by the managers to make recommendations and/or set regulations that affect not only subsistence users, but also commercial fishermen as well as eagles, bears and other animals that are dependent on the returning salmon.

Basically, that information is used to assess whether or not there are enough fish available to have a commercial fishery, and if so how and when the openings should occur.  The data are also used to determine how many fish will be left to spawn after the subsistence and commercial fishers remove their piece of the pie.  The fish left to spawn are what’s referred to as escapement.  Since it only stands to reason that today’s escapement determines how many will come back in the future, it’s important to get all those numbers right!

In this post we’ll look at one information variable that can be quite variable – run timing.  Everyone knows that from year to year there is substantial variation between when the first Chinook shows up and when the rest, or bulk, of the run passes by.  As always, there are always a few stragglers that mosey on by long after the others have spawned and died…kind of like the Red Lantern musher for the K300.  One year in mid September I saw a male Chinook in a backwater under a thin coating of ice on the Kisaralik River; I’m sure he was the Red Lantern that year.

The Bethel Test Fishery is one tool used to collect data, but it’s really used as an index to indicate the strength and timing of the run; if it’s catching a good number of Chinook, chum, sockeye pink and silvers then there should be quite a few passing by Bethel.

The graph below is one example of how biologists show run timing.

Chinook Salmon Run Timing For The Kuskokwim River

All the colored squiggly lines starting on the left and moving up and to the right represent a different year of returns for Chinook passing by Bethel – the numbers are derived from the Bethel Test Fishery.  The vertical (up and down) axis represents the percentage or proportion of fish of the total run for a particular corresponding date on the horizontal (left to right) axis (6/1, 6/2, 6/3, etc.).  June 1 is the first date on this graph because that’s when the test fishery begins drifting each year.

The blue squiggly line on the far left is considered an early, or in this case the earliest, run of all the years used to construct the graph. Lets follow the line from left to right and see what it’s telling us.  For that particular year, if you were fishing near Bethel other than from June 8th through June 15 you might have had to spend much more time getting what you needed when you did fish.  Those dates correspond to several days before and after the date that half of all the Chinook passed Bethel.  It’s basically the period when the bulk of the Chinook are both above and below Bethel and it is shown by the thick red horizontal line between the numbers 40 and 60.

To find the midpoint for any year, find where the colored line that corresponds with the year you’re interested in crosses the thick red line and drop a straight line down to the horizontal axis…that’s the date you’re looking for.

Now lets look at a different year, a very different year.  The brown line shows the latest run timing that the test fishery has ever documented.  Excluding weather conditions for drying and the desire to catch the early, bright fish – a good time to catch Chinook would have been between June 25 and July 4th; that’sbecause that’s the period that corresponds when a bulk of the fish are in the vicinity of Bethel.  During this year when the run was late, if you’d been fishing from June 8 through June 15 – when it was statistically the best time to be out in the blue year – you probably wouldn’t have caught much if anything!

Why do I say that?

If you look at the dates from June 1 through June 19 the flat brown line is indicating that no fish had been caught yet in the test fishery (although we know that some fish are in the river).  It was only beginning around June 20 when the line starts rising upwards that there were good numbers of fish being caught in the test fishery.

Obviously fishermen pass the word around as to when the fish are running, so they naturally adjust their fishing habits.  But this data can be used to let upriver fishermen know what to expect for when, and how many fish are heading their way.  Of course even if you were to fish outside these timeframes, it can always be good if you get lucky and happen to catch a large pulse of fish moving through right at that time; sometimes, the early bird gets the worm…or in this case the fish!

Keep in mind that the blue and brown lines discussed here are the extreme cases.  That’s why the other lines are bunched together with the majority of them closer to the average, which is pretty much in the middle of all that mess.  So if you were to draw a line through the middle of all those others following the same general pattern – that would show what the overall average run timing for Chinook in the Kuskokwim River has been over the years.

Bethel Test Fish Update June 11 – The Cumulative Is Up To 5

Two Chinook salmon were caught in the Bethel Test Fishery yesterday – June 10th so the cumulative is now up to 5.

As you can see, the next closest year to that would be in 2006 – when over 220,000 salmon escaped; so there is hope – however slim – that things will turn around.

Bethel Test Fish Cumulative As Of June 10

 

 

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