This year’s king salmon run is projected to be below average but within the Department of Fish and Game’s escapement goal, assistant area management biologist Brian Elliott said this week.
About 2,024 spawning kings are expected to return to the Chilkat River, compared to an average of 3,724 counted on the spawning grounds since mark-recapture studies were started in 1994, Elliott said. The low end of the state’s escapement goal is 1,850 kings, a number that was not reached in 2012, 2010 or 2007, Elliott said.
“I talked to commercial troll fishermen in the spring who caught half of what (kings) they caught last year, and last year was not so great. So there’s a concern there,” Elliott said.
Fish and Game has responded to declining numbers of returning kings by lowering the daily bag limit in Southeast for Alaska residents to one king per day, down from three last year. Also, non-resident anglers will be held to a season bag limit of three kings total, with only two allowed after July 1 and one allowed to be taken after July 16.
The latter restriction is aimed at protecting immature fish that come into the area to feed.
“We want to target the mature spawners,” Elliott said. Elliott said Fish and Game expects 75 percent of spawners
this year to be 6-year-old fish. “We’re hoping that age class holds up and we make our escapement goal… What we’re observing the last couple years is we have below-average age classes that are hurting our returns.”
The upcoming salmon derby is an opportunity for biologists to learn about this year’s run.
The agency typically takes data, including ages, from every fish turned in during the event. “If the weather improves and we get more angling effort, we’ll get a better idea of what’s going on in Chilkoot and Chilkat (inlets),” he said. “The derby always gets people out.”
Unfortunately for the derby, during the past four years, catches of king salmon have been relatively weak before June and have improved during the first three weeks of June.
A Lutak Inlet king smolt release aimed at boosting returns to the Chilkoot side has been suspended through 2014 due to low returns to Skagway’s Pullen Creek, the source of king eggs that have been used at Lutak. However, about
220,000 smolt released there in 2009 could boost catches this year. Some of those kings showed up in commercial and subsistence fisheries last year, Elliott said.
Efforts started last year to address declining numbers of king salmon statewide. New work includes restructuring research to date and increasing efforts to track bycatch in other fisheries, including the pollock fishery, he
Locally and statewide, freshwater production of king salmon appears healthy, Elliott said. “Our populations in the
rivers seem pretty good. I think the marine environment is the main problem.”
Recent cold weather – including colder ocean temperatures – also may be a factor in returns, he said. Warmer temperatures are favorable to squid, which along with small fish form a main part of a king salmon’s diet, he said. “Cold water in Alaska is bad for king salmon.”