Residents to Fish and Game: Protect wild red runs
Residents at a June 6 meeting in Haines said they were afraid the state was repeating mistakes of the past, including boosting fishermen elsewhere at the expense of the valley’s wild sockeye stocks.
Concerns included missed escapements at Chilkat Lake in recent years and relatively low numbers at Chilkoot Lake. The meeting, called by Haines Borough officials, included gillnetters and others.
Commercial fisheries director Jeff Regnart and regional supervisor Scott Kelley were among 20 people in attendance.
Local gillnetter and state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, said the state wasn’t returning enough sockeye to local lakes to meet management mandates. “Our catch records are what have us concerned. We went from catching a couple hundred thousand sockeye to catching 40,000. We’re not sustaining the fleet. We’re just sustaining the run.”
Thomas said sockeye returning to the lake when he started fishing averaged about 8.5 pounds, but have shrunk to about seven pounds.
To meet escapement goals when runs are weak, all fishing gear groups catching those fish need to “share the pain,” Thomas said. State biologist Kelley said he believed that was being done.
Former state biologist Ray Staska recounted “a political clash that went on for years” to provide adequate protection for sockeye stocks in Lynn Canal. “Right now we’ve got management tools better than anywhere else in the state for managing sockeye. This sockeye stock should be the best managed in the entire state of Alaska.”
Haines commercial fish biologist Randy Bachman said the sockeye “heyday” occurred here 1982-92, but it was driven primarily by Chilkoot Lake, when the return to Chilkat Lake was weak.
But after those years, zooplankton that juvenile fish feed on plummeted at Chilkoot, Bachman said. “We overgrazed the lake. We ate up all the groceries and (the lake) is still trying to recover since then.” Dry, hot summers in the mid-90s worsened the problem, he said, and only now are the groceries trending upward. “We’re expecting a pretty good year this year (on Chilkoot),” he said.
Kelley said the state had devoted “tremendous resources” to studying Chilkoot and Chilkat, including “phenomenal support” from Rep. Thomas.
Chilkat is a clear and productive lake because zooplankton-generating sunlight reaches deep underwater there. In contrast, the sun barely shines into glacially-silted Chilkoot Lake, Kelley said.
At Chilkat Lake, a large population of stickleback fish compete with juvenile salmon for zooplankton. By contrast, there are few stickleback at Chilkoot. Also at Chilkat, juvenile salmon spend two years instead of one, which is unique among sockeye. The differences between the two may explain the cyclical nature of runs to each, he said.
Assemblywoman Debra Schnabel pressed Kelley for a commitment to preserve the integrity of local stocks, and argue for them in the political arena. Kelley said the agency is compelled to manage first for preservation of wild stocks.
Kelley also said there would be close watch on a cost-recovery seine fishery of hatchery-raised chum at Amalga Harbor, in lower Lynn Canal. “We’re going to monitor it because we’ve heard (concerns) over and over… We’re very cognizant of the issues you’ve brought up.”