Low sockeye escapement leads to Chilkoot River closure
State sportfish biologists closed Chilkoot River to retention of sockeye salmon this week, in the wake of low escapement of mature fish into Chilkoot Lake.
Through July 15, 4,355 sockeye had passed Chilkoot weir, compared to a 10-year average of 12,962 in escapement by the same week. “The probability of making minimum escapement (of 38,000) is not very good,” said Brian Elliott, assistant area management biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish.
Last year, anglers caught 1,026 sockeye in the river and lake. “That’s a number that could be significant on the spawning grounds,” Elliott said.
However, the closure could be rescinded if fish start showing up in larger numbers, Elliott said. “This is not written in stone. We act on the best available data we have in front of us today. The hope is we’ll get a big push, which may happen.”
Under similar conditions in 2010, Fish and Game reduced bag limits July 8-29. Bag limits were liberalized last year, following a bumper sockeye return. The normal bag limit at the river is six sockeye per day.
The bulk of the sockeye run typically comes in late July, attracting sport fishermen from the Lower 48, Canada and Haines.
Doug Olerud, manager of Alaska Sport Shop, this week said he disagreed with the decision to prohibit retention of fish. “Why couldn’t they go down to one (sockeye) per day? There’s not that many fish being caught.”
Olerud said he understood the need to protect the run, but said fishing there is important even for locals, some of whom consider sport fish harvest their version of subsistence fishing.
Biologist Elliott said until Fish and Game knows differently, it may need every sockeye heading into the lake. “We don’t want to take that kind of chance.”
Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Randy Bachman said escapement is tracking a few hundred fish more than at the same week in 2008, the parent year to this year’s sockeye run, which was also depressed. (At 34,000, sockeye escapement in 2008 fell short of the state’s minimum escapement goal of 38,000 fish.)
Restrictions of commercial fishing to protect Chilkoot sockeye include mesh restrictions and closure on the east shoreline of Lynn Canal above Point Bridget near Berner’s Bay.
A good return of sockeye to the Chilkat drainage this season has led to commercial openings on the west side of Lynn Canal up to Kochu Island in Chilkat Inlet. Above-average catches have brought about a dozen commercial boats to fish on the Chilkat side, Bachman said.
Most of the commercial gillnet fleet is still fishing for hatchery chums. About 110 boats in Lynn Canal last week averaged catches of 1,636 chum and 91 sockeye. That compares to the previous week, when 185 boats fished the canal, each taking an average 2,054 chum and 54 sockeye.
At about 1 million fish, the hatchery chum harvest to date is off a record pace of 1.4 million harvested by the same week last year, Bachman said. “The chum seemed to have come early this year,” he said.
Two years ago, when Chilkoot sockeye numbers also were low, commercial gillnetters raised concerns about interception of local fish in southern seine-fishing districts.
Gillnetter Steve Fossman said this week the fleet would be watching for seine openings at Homeshore and Admiralty Island’s Hawk Inlet, where fishermen believe Chilkoot-bound sockeye are intercepted as bycatch. “We all have concerns about it. Hopefully, (Fish and Game) is dealing with it.”
Fossman said the troll and seine fisheries are now taking a bite of hatchery chum harvests. “The pie keeps getting smaller.”