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

 

 

 

Large Scale Logging Comes To The Kuskokwim

2012 FIREWOOD HARVEST UPDATE, April 16:

“Starting  the 3rd Week & going over the hump”

Since our last report we have worked two weeks of twelve hour days and are going into a third week with deteriorating harvest conditions. Daytime temperatures are into the 50’s. It’s getting wet and sloppy – both on the River and in the woods. Thankfully, we are still getting a good freeze at night. My own days (Mark Leary) have begun at 6:30 AM making coffee, then breakfast for the crew by 8. They are on the job site by 9 AM. I use the late morning hours to do administrative work and chores to keep up the camp (wood, water, dishes, etc.). By 1 or 2 PM I bring a hot lunch to the crew at the harvest site then spend the rest of the afternoon helping out where needed. At 7 PM I come back up to start dinner. The crew comes up by 9 PM and we eat by 10. Then a little cleaning up, talking about how the day went, planning for the next, and off to bed.
 
The week of April 2nd our harvest went slow in the initial harvest area downstream of the dump road. The timber in this area was small, but we got what we could out of it and the stockpiles slowly grew. We all agreed that with the time remaining our focus should be getting the timber out of the woods and worry about bundling later in the spring. With this in mind, the timber was brought out full length first. Finding 40’ to 60’ trees hard to handle at times, we started having the harvester operator cut them in 24’ lengths so they can later be cut in half for the 12’ lengths the customer wants.
 

Loader bringing wood out full length

 

As the harvest area moves farther away the dozer skids out loads of timber....

...while another is being loaded

 

24' lengths

Full length piles

Better Volume:

Early into the week of April 9th we finally started getting to the area of big timber that we always knew was there, but the windfall is terrible. One thing that NRCS Forester was right about: we lost 50% of our timber since 2009 and they’re all big trees. Getting the windfall out with the harvester isn’t efficient right now. The trees are a tangled mess buried under the snow and many are frozen in. The harvester operator takes what windfall he can – the ones that aren’t too difficult to get out. Otherwise he can get three or four standing trees during the time it takes to get one tough windfall.  The rest of the windfall will have to wait. It’s almost heartbreaking to see all of this wood blown down. If we had been doing this project prior to 2009 we would be rolling in wood!

Hard to tell if you don't know what you're looking at, but all the big snow covered lumps are windblown trees Notice that many of the standing trees are leaning over as well.

Even with bigger, better timber the going is somewhat slow. With the majority of windfall being in-accessible at this time, volume is lower. On a good day we get 40 cords out. At this time we don’t know exactly how much we have. For the first week the computer wasn’t working right so we don’t have record of what was harvested. It has since been fixed, but it is always records lower than what we know the skids hold when fully loaded.

At the end of each day we try to calculate what has been harvested.  This is the most wood we’ve ever seen stockpiled in our region! If all goes well I believe we will be past the halfway point by the end of this week. When the wood is bundled we will get an accurate volume number.

The Waratah Man Comes to Town:

As promised at the training we attended at the Waratah dealership in Washington, Mr. Alan Waldman came to give us a hand on April 10th. Waratah is the manufacturer of the harvester head.

Alan Waldman, Product Support Manager, Waratah Forestry Attachments arrives in Napaimute

Alan spent three days with us, first fixing the computer, then observing and helping improve our harvest methods. He also worked with the guys on maintenance and minor repair issues with the harvester attachment. His time here was very valuable for us and it looked like he enjoyed it as well.

Catching a ride from the airfield

Putting on a new chain

The Harvester:

No complaints with the harvester machine its self. It is doing what we thought it could do and has worked well. There is a little down time each day for maintenance or the occasional thrown or broken chain, but overall it was the right machine for the job. Fuel consumption is good – 1/2 a tank per good long day. The volume we have to date wouldn’t have been possible without this machine.

The harvester in action - felling and delimbing a tree in about a minute

Where do we go from here?

We’ve been working hard to accomplish something that’s never been done in our region before – a large-scale timber harvest. We picked a tough year to do it in: above normal snow depth and extended cold. Our start-up expenses have been high, but we have the best crew available and once the actual harvest got started it has gone well – just a little slower than planned.

We will ge the quantity the customer wants eventually. So at the end of this week will will take a break to let the country finish thawing and drying out. We will resume the harvest late in May.

That’s the update.

Thank you.