An amended plan for management of Chinook salmon in the Nushagak-Mulchatna rivers of Southwest Alaska will be up for action when the Alaska Board of Fisheries meets at the Egan Civic & Convention Center in Anchorage on March 10-14.
The huge 2022 harvest of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon notwithstanding, statewide declines of wild salmon, including kings, in most areas of the state, are well known and prompting increasing concern.
Chinook salmon in the waters of the Nushagak-Mulchatna rivers are a stock of concern.
Revised Proposal 11, on the board’s agenda for this meeting, identifies seven specific management objectives, beginning with providing consistent sport fishing opportunity within and among seasons, including a level of in river abundance as a given year’s run timing allows, and a predictably open season.
The proposal would provide a directed commercial king salmon fishery when surplus is available and provide for an uninterrupted commercial sockeye salmon fishery with minimal disruptions.
The proposal would further provide reasonable opportunity for subsistence harvest of king salmon, with the subsistence fishery the last fishery to be closed, achieve escapement goals for all species in the district, and maintain a representation of age classes in the escapement similar to the run.
The proposal also calls for managing large sockeye runs so that escapements fall in the upper portion of the escapement goal range, which would reduce incidental catch, and for using a Nushagak District test fishery to assess relative abundance of sockeye and king salmon with a new provision. That is from June 1 through June 30 that Alaska Department of Fish and Game would conduct a drift gillnet test fishery to assess the abundance of sockeye and king salmon prior to opening by emergency order a fishing period directed at sockeye salmon.
Also included in the proposal is a plan to consider a directed commercial Chinook fishery if the total in-river king salmon return to the Nushagak River is projected to exceed 95,000 fish.
In his testimony to the board provided in advance of the statewide finfish meeting, Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), said that Chinook salmon are not being reliably counted and there is not sufficient information to make reasonable decisions. In fact, commercial Chinook harvests are already down 82%, and it is unknown whether sockeye abundance affects Chinook productivity, he noted.
Wink also pointed out that there are more compelling causes for poor Chinook productivity than fishermen intercepts, and that the economic cost of sockeye over-escapement is enormous. He cited a University of Washington study that estimates killer whales consumed well over 20 million pounds of Chinook salmon in 2010 along the coasts of Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest every year, more than three times the number of salmon currently harvested by humans.
Wink also noted that Area M fishermen in the area of the Alaska Peninsula harvested far more king salmon than normal in 2015 and have continued to harvest more than Chinook, compared to the years Wink’s testimony contends that the Alaska Board of Fisheries’ current plan of action appears unsupported by science or the board’s statutory goals.
“Additionally, the current plan completely ignores the fact that, in addition to conservation, the board should also focus on economic development and commercial utilization of the fishery resource,” Wink said.
The BBRSDA recommended that the board and ADF&G prioritize and improve scientific research and data collection before making significant changes to Nushagak salmon management regulations that affect both Chinook and sockeye salmon, and also improve subsistence harvest surveying. The BBRSDA also recommended exercising caution and precision involving changes to commercial fishery regulations that could result in significant foregone sockeye harvests, ideally continuing with most status quo sockeye regulations until better data/science can be provided to inform future decisions.