Possible reductions in salmon fishing time in the Area M mixed stock June fishery are among the many controversial issues before the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting, that runs through Saturday.
A subcommittee of the Fairbanks Fisheries Advisory committee contends in its proposal that there is a direct correlation between the high harvest of chum in Area M to the loss of chum escapement to the Arctic-Yukon Kuskokwim (AYK) region and a total loss of chum subsistence harvest.
Reducing the Area M June fishery will allow opportunity to see if chum escapement in the AYK will be able to meet escapement goals and allow for a subsistence harvest, the proposal said.
The AYK and Area M are both home to predominantly Alaska Native communities, places where salmon harvests have an important cultural, nutritional and economic role.
The decline of salmon runs has been so severe in some areas that not even subsistence fishing was permitted during the summer of 2022.
Meanwhile in Area M, the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands fishery management area, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) estimated the total preliminary commercial harvest for 2022 to be worth $720.4 million, up from $643.9 million a year earlier. A total of 160.7 million fish were harvested in 2022, down 31% from the 2021 harvest total of 233.8 million salmon. The ADF&G said the decrease in harvest was explained by the relatively low pink salmon run size in 2022, consistent for even-numbered years over the last decade.
The decline of salmon in western Alaska, other than Bristol Bay, has been of growing concern for at least several years as researchers consider a growing body of evidence that there are multiple factors at play. Those indicators range from warming ocean waters to pollution, changing levels of oxygen in the water and predatory-prey relationships, as well as the impact of millions of hatchery salmon competing with wild salmon for a finite amount of food in the ocean.
A 2022 report from ADF&G concluded that just 17.7% of chum salmon harvested while passing through Area M during that summer were bound for the AYK. Area M residents contend that reducing their harvest access will not help other harvesters. Extensive testimony from Area M and AYK residents spoke to the cultural and economic impact of letting stand or amending management of the Area M June fishery.
Among the written testimony under consideration is that of University of Washington fisheries professor Daniel Schindler, who has been studying western Alaska fisheries for over two decades. One aspect of his work has been in quantifying how genetic diversity and environmental complexity combine to maintain healthy salmon populations in Bristol Bay.
Schindler’s written testimony notes that chum and Chinook salmon returning to western Alaska rivers from the Nushagak to the Kuskokwim and Yukon, to those in Norton Sound are severely depressed at present.
“While complete stock assessments are not available for many of the major stocks in this region, the existing data clearly show the extent of the current conservation crisis,” he said in the testimony. “It has been known for decades that Area M sockeye salmon fisheries intercept chum salmon destined for western Alaska rivers. These interceptions have been a conservation concern in the past, motivating the WASSIP (Western Alaska Salmon Stock Identification program) study in the early 2000s to identify the stock of origin of chum salmon and sockeye salmon in these fisheries.”
Meanwhile, commercial fisheries in Area M have been allowed to continue to exploit these fish without restriction, a situation Schindler said is “antithetical to the sustained yield principle of the Alaska Constitution and in direct conflict with Alaska’s Sustainable Salmon Policy.”
In the face of uncertainty regarding impacts of Area M, the Sustainable Salmon Policy directs the board to take action that errs on the side of conservation when population viability is threatened to ensure sustained yield management in western Alaska rivers with documented severely depressed escapements, he said.