December 6, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 49

Chilkat coho, king returns drop

While Lynn Canal commercial fishermen enjoyed bumper returns of sockeye and hatchery chum this year, king and coho salmon – species favored by local anglers –returned in diminished numbers.

Rich Chapell, Haines sportfish biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said low marine survival is the suspected reason that Chilkat king salmon didn’t meet escapement goals for the second time in three years.

Fish and Game estimates 1,627 kings returned in 2012, short of the in-river abundance goal range of 1,850 to 3,600 fish.

“We had plenty of spawners and large numbers of smolt leaving the river. We know from coded-wire tagging work, they weren’t harvested in fisheries and they didn’t come back to spawn in the river. A lot of them didn’t grow up in the ocean,” Chapell said.

King returns were poor statewide, prompting the state to launch new studies toward explaining the drop.

Chapell said since 2001 Haines biologists have provided data for statewide studies on kings. “They’re using Chilkat chinook as an indicator stock,” Chapell said. “We’re telling them how many smolt leave the river, marine survival and marine harvest numbers.”

An estimated 38,407 coho returned to the Chilkat, above the escapement goal range of 30,000 to 70,000 fish. Restrictions to allow coho passage put a crimp on commercial fishing at the end of the gillnet season.

Coho returns also were low in Valdez and were spotty at some other Southeast rivers, Chapell said.

Coho return as three-year-old fish. King salmon come back during their fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh years.

Recent studies suggest the average size of kings and coho in Southeast are in decline. The average commercially caught king in Southeast weighed 17 pounds in 1995 but only 13.5 pounds most recently, Chapell said.

King and coho typically feed on smaller fish. Returns of pink and chum salmon, which don’t feed on other fish, appear healthier. Pink salmon eat squid and chum rely on a large stomach and high volumes of low-quality forage, Chapell said.