March 1, 2012 | Vol. 42 No. 8

A rising drumbeat for wild fish

Gillnetters solicit town support for restoring runs

Commercial fishermen are hoping to enlist broad community support in an effort to reverse a perceived decline in the area’s wild salmon runs, starting with an upcoming meeting with Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials from Juneau.

Haines Borough leaders, who sought the meeting and have designated money for research, have joined what area gillnetters say will be a sustained effort to get attention and manpower on improving production at Chilkat and Chilkoot lakes, particularly of wild sockeye salmon.

Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said she’s encouraged that Fish and Game’s upper managers are willing to hear the community out. In a recent letter, deputy commissioner Dave Bedford said the agency’s director of commercial fisheries would meet local leaders on management issues, including sockeye. A date is pending.

“It’s up to us to work with gillnetters and learn how to be meaningfully involved to protect this tremendous asset,” Scott said. “The gillnet fishery is worth about $10 million a year to this community, and it could be worth more. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

The fleet also is working with state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, a lifelong commercial fisherman who said last fall he’ll be looking to direct funding into research on the area’s wild salmon systems.

Until about 20 years ago, sockeye represented most of the value in the local drift gillnet harvest. Fluctuating returns in the late 1980s, however, led fishermen to push for acquaculture projects in Lynn Canal, including releases of hatchery chum salmon intended to provide fishing opportunity when sockeye numbers sagged.

Factors including successful marketing, new product development, and problems at foreign salmon farms have boosted chum prices in recent years. Survival of hatchery fish also improved, providing the fleet with increasing returns. As a result, most of the roughly 80 boats that make up the local fleet now fish mainly on chums, although sockeye are worth about twice as much per pound.

The irony, fishing group leaders say, is that despite reduced effort on sockeye, wild returns of those fish to the lakes haven’t rebounded. In fact, managers in recent years haven’t consistently returned to lakes enough fish needed to sustain the runs, a number called “minimum escapement.”

There’s something wrong with that equation, said J.R. Churchill, a veteran fisherman and vice-president of Lynn Canal Gillnet Association.

“Eighty to ninety boats here used to fish sockeye and we all made a living. Now all but about five boats fish on hatchery chum. But with us concentrating on summer chum, the sockeye runs are still anemic,” Churchill said.

Churchill said he’d like to have subsistence and sportfish interests and other residents at the upcoming meeting with Fish and Game brass. “It’s not just the upper Lynn Canal gillnetters’ fish. It’s subsistence users fish and sportfishermen’s fish and everybody down the line. We’d certainly hope everybody can participate in that,” Churchill said.

At this point, fishermen and Fish and Game leaders appear to have differing views on the severity of the issue.

In his letter to the borough, deputy commissioner Bedford said records indicate sockeye escapements at Chilkoot and Chilkat have fluctuated since 1976 and that that’s common for wild salmon populations.

A chart included in Bedford’s letter, however, shows sockeye escapement into Chilkat Lake at minimum or below minimum escapement in six of the past seven years. Chilkoot Lake didn’t meet minimum escapement goals in 2008 and 2009. Successive years of missed escapement goals can lead the state to designate a fish run a “stock of concern,” bringing more protection for fish and less fishing opportunity for gillnetters.

With returns “bumping up against” stock-of-concern thresholds, Churchill said the state should be investing more energy in understanding local sockeye systems. Toward that end, gillnetters, with help from the borough, expect to soon hire a private limnologist, or lake scientist, to start looking at Chilkoot and Chilkat this spring, including reviewing Fish and Game data.

“What Fish and Game does is monitor the fisheries,” Churchill said. “There’s no group that tries to turn around troubled systems and lakes, so we decided to do it on our own.”

Among issues to be studied are a range of factors that affect lake productivity, including siltation and populations of zooplankton that juvenile fish feed on. “What we’re looking for is why our lakes aren’t producing at historic levels and what it will take to bring them back,” Churchill said.

Fishermen also are challenging state management that allowed about 180,000 sockeye – including at least some bound for Haines – to be scooped up by seine fishermen targeting pink salmon last summer.

In his letter to the borough, Fish and Game’s Bedford suggests that providing “an unobstructed path” for Lynn Canal salmon in Icy Straits would amount to an allocation decision, an issue for the state Board of Fish, a political group, rather than management biologists.

Churchill disagrees with Bedford’s characterization of the issue. “Our fish are being caught between the ocean and Lynn Canal and we’re failing to make escapement goals. That’s a biological issue. We’re on firm ground here.”

Gillnetters are paying to obtain e-mails between Fish and Game biologists at the time of the seine intercept. Churchill said the fleet plans to keep pressure on the state, so that when situations arise similar to seine harvest, the agency knows people in Haines are watching fish numbers and the management.

Mayor Scott expressed a big-picture view of the importance of the effort, noting that attractions like the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve are dependent on healthy salmon runs. “I think there’s a renewed sense that what’s important here are our fish. They’re our lifeblood, so we’re going to make sure they’re being attended to.”