Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Can Chilkat king salmon be saved?


Fishing restrictions to protect dwindling numbers of Chilkat king salmon may be coming to the most lucrative commercial fishery in the area – harvest of hatchery-raised chum salmon by gillnet boats in south Lynn Canal.

Ed Jones, the state Department of Fish and Game's Chinook salmon research coordinator, said this week that state biologists will meet soon to discuss Chilkat king salmon management and pending restrictions.

Research has shown Chilkat kings are primarily caught in gillnet and spring troll fisheries, and in sport and subsistence fisheries in northern Southeast Alaska.

"The data's pretty clear. These fish are being caught in the spring troll and gillnet fisheries... We don't need to close these fisheries, but we need to make rational moves to reach our escapement goals," Jones said this week.

One possibility, Jones said, is to close gillnet fishing at night, a time when boats tend to catch feeding kings.

Like king salmon runs statewide, the Chilkat return has been diminished for about seven years, but the local run also has shown a generally steady decline since 1991. In the early 1990s, about 5,000 kings returned to the Chilkat each year. In the past five years, the return has exceeded 2,000 kings only once.

Biologist Brian Elliott of Haines recently said he wouldn't describe what's happening to Chilkat king salmon as a "perfect storm," but only because that's an expression he doesn't like.

Elliott, a stock assessment biologist for Fish and Game, has outlined worrisome trends affecting kings: declines in escapement, marine survival and the size and fertility of females believed to be key spawners.

"When you have three major components of production falling at the same time, it isn't good," Elliott said in an interview.

Increased incidental catch of Chilkat kings by commercial gillnetters also is a concern. Gillnet boats in 2014 reeled in 520 kings, compared to 197 Chilkat kings caught by anglers. (Subsistence fishermen caught 72 kings, according to Fish and Game estimates.)

The drift gillnet take of Chilkat kings has risen substantially. During the past five years, the incidental catch has averaged 311 annually. That's double the average from the previous five-year span from 2005-2009: 155 kings.

Elliott said most of the king interception is occurring in fishing districts north of Juneau, where numbers of gillnet boats – including ones from other fishing districts – nearly doubled in recent years to exploit returns of hatchery-raised chum.

"If we have 120 more boats, that's a lot more webbing in the water. There's obviously going to be an impact," Elliott said.

Elliott is quick to point out that only an estimated 88 of last year's 520 gillnet-caught Chilkat kings were of spawning age, ones that had spent three years or more rearing in the ocean. Most intercepted fish are juveniles that have spent only two years in the ocean, what biologists call "two-ocean" fish.

"The (520) number isn't making that much of a direct impact on what we consider the productive spawning population. The harvest of two-ocean fish is a mixture of mature and rearing fish. It's a complex issue. You have to take a two-dimensional number and put some depth to it," Elliott said.

At between 20 and 26 inches, two-ocean kings are just the right size to become trapped in net webbing designed to catch a mature chum salmon.

Though the state hasn't determined the sex of the gillnet-intercepted fish, biologists believe most are males. Mature, female fish typically spend three years in the ocean before returning to spawn.

But that's also an area of concern.

For the first time, female Chilkat kings are returning after just two years in the ocean to spawn. "That's something that we never used to see. The maturity ages are fluctuating wildly," Elliott said.

That means commercial gillnets catching two-ocean fish are probably catching some spawning females.

In addition, younger mature females are smaller than older ones and produce fewer eggs.

"Chilkat chinook are not producing like they used to. A smaller, younger female produces fewer eggs. Two thousand fish in the Chilkat River drainage means less production than it did 10 years ago," Elliott said.

Research coordinator Jones points out that larger, older kings bury their eggs deeper in spawning gravel, increasing the survival of their eggs, compared to eggs from younger fish.

Jones said his biggest concerns are the declining numbers of larger fish as well as deeper cycles of weak runs. "What we need to see is back to back good brood years, and we're not seeing that. Other than brood year 2010, our (marine) survival has been really bad."

Fish and Game started tagging and tracking Chilkat kings in 2000, providing numbers for where in the ocean the fish were rearing and being caught. Biologists now know that Chilkat fish rear just offshore the Panhandle, or inside its waters, compared to kings from other Southeast rivers that migrate to the Gulf of Alaska to grow.

Tagging – and more recently genetic – studies also have given biologists a rough understanding of what other fisheries are catching kings bound for the Chilkat River. Elliott and Jones said the total harvest of Chilkat kings by all users averages about 30 percent of the run. Elliott said that should leave enough fish to keep the run healthy, but not as many fish are surviving their time in the ocean.

Ten to 15 years ago, the marine survival rate of juvenile Chilkat kings fluctuated between 3 and 5 percent. More recently, that's about 2 percent and has dropped as low as 1 percent, Jones said.

That means for every 100 juvenile kings going out to sea, only one is returning, as opposed to four or five. For the most recent brood year (kings that spawned in 2008) only 1,670 fish – or 1.2 percent of 142,000 juveniles produced – survived to return to the Chilkat. "When you have poor marine survival, you can't afford a lot of harvest," said Haines biologist Elliott.

The state recently dedicated $15 million for a Salmon Research Initiative to find out what's happening to king stocks statewide that have been depressed for seven years. Stocks in Southeast are doing better than Alaska ones further north and ones in northern British Columbia.

Ironically, king salmon stocks on the West Coast are surging. Since 2012, those stocks – many of them generated by hatcheries – "have gone through the roof" while returns in Alaska have hit new lows, Jones said. "The cycles have become more extreme."

Longtime residents familiar with fisheries this week had varied reactions to the most recent restrictions aimed at saving the king run.

Charlie DeWitt, a longtime commercial gillnetter who also sportfishes for kings, this week was skeptical of restrictions on the hatchery chum fishery. "We don't catch many kings at all. You catch a rare one at Amalga (Harbor)."

He said he believed the subsistence take of kings is underreported and would like to see a closure of subsistence king fishing in Chilkat Inlet during the first two weeks of the fishery. "The problem is they don't take a creel survey of subsistence fishermen. (Subsistence fishermen) have the first right to the fish, but it's everybody's right to make sure we have enough fish."

DeWitt also was critical of Fish and Game studies that involve handling wild fish and attempts to boost the sport fishery through methods like pen releases. "They catch these fish numerous times. How much stress are we inducing into the fish...We've suffered because of man's meddling," he said.

Lynn Canal Conservation president Eric Holle said the state hasn't previously taken an adequate look at Chilkat king take by other fisheries. Gillnet night closures during the king run are a good idea, he said. "Feeder kings come to the surface at night and sockeye catches are lower at night. It wouldn't impact anybody that much."

Holle also expressed concerns about mortality of troll-caught kings that fishermen must release when they're undersized. "I'm glad the state has started to look at mortality out there, but I hope it's not too little too late."

Craig Loomis, a charter boat operator and former chair of the Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said all users have had a part in the run's decline, including charter operators and sport fishermen. Loomis said he's giving "eco-tours" these days, and takes only a few fish to feed his clients on board.

The natural king run here is going the way of the diminished fall Chilkat chum run, he said. He pointed to king salmon derbies that each year are won by smaller fish. Loomis also speculated that numbers of hatchery-raised chum might be impacting rearing Chilkat kings in the ocean. Like DeWitt, he supports further restrictions on subsistence fishing.

"If they don't shut down something, somewhere, these fish are gone," Loomis said.


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