This column is sponsored by Takshanuk Watershed Council

The Chilkat River (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

By Derek Poinsette

A couple of weeks ago, we here in the Upper Lynn Canal were blessed with a consistent stretch of light winds and warm temperatures, with highs in the 40s, and near-perfect conditions for rigging up the poles and trolling Portage Cove for winter king salmon. And indeed, a good handful of motivated anglers fired up their winterized gillnetters, or dug their skiffs out of snowbanks, and embarked upon the placid fjord to try and catch themselves a cold-season king, or two.

There used to be many more feeder kings in local waters in the winter time, and catching one in February was not the long shot that it is today. There isn’t a lot of data to rely on, but it’s thought that these winter kings are not necessarily fish that were born and will eventually spawn here in our local rivers. It is likely they are a mix of fish from different Alaska and B.C. waters, and some are probably from as far away as the Columbia River and hatcheries in Oregon and Washington.

According to research done by ADF&G fishery biologists, king salmon production throughout Southeast Alaska has consistently declined since about 2001. In 2018, after not making target escapement in three out of four years, the Chilkat River king salmon population was listed as a “stock of concern” by the State of Alaska, and limits on subsistence, commercial and sport fishing activities were imposed.

The goal of these targeted restrictions, which are still in effect today, is to protect the few returning Chilkat kings, allowing as many as possible through to their upriver spawning grounds. And hopefully, over some amount of time, the stock will recover to previous levels of production, and normal angling efforts can be allowed to resume. If harvest of this struggling population is not limited by regulation, then it is possible the entire Chilkat River run could be driven to extinction.

ADF&G’s 2024 forecast is for below-target levels of king salmon returns in all rivers in Southeast Alaska–except for the Chilkat and the Unuk, which are expected to reach their escapement goals, if only just barely. As Brian Elliott, our local king salmon research biologist, said on KHNS last week, this is a good reason for some cautious optimism. The restrictions implemented in 2018 seem to be working, and our Chilkat River king salmon stock appears to be recovering.

This is certainly good news for us, because over the past 200 years most of the world’s salmon runs have disappeared–driven to extinction by habitat destruction and over-harvest. Successfully bringing one back from the brink is a rather new and exciting experiment, fueled by good science, and also plenty of sincere feelings of responsibility and care all around–from biologists to harvesters to politicians and concerned citizens.
But before we get too carried away with patting each other on the back, we of course should be asking: Why are so many of our salmon runs struggling in the first place? Obviously this is a complex topic, and the research fills many volumes.

However, after many decades of inquiry, scientists have a solid understanding of what salmon need to survive and thrive:

  1. High quality freshwater spawning habitat,
  2. Safe and healthy places to feed as juveniles, both in fresh water and near-shore salt water,
  3. Sufficient food and safety in the open ocean to grow to adult spawning age and size,
  4. The ability to safely return to their natal spawning streams to start the cycle over again.

If any part of this cycle is disturbed or disrupted, then a reduction in salmon production, followed by a decreased return to spawning streams (also known as “escapement”), would be expected.

Although circumstances here in the Chilkat Valley aren’t as hostile to salmon as more developed places farther south, Chilkat kings are nonetheless facing a handful of challenges spread throughout all stages of their life cycle.

From ADF&G’s research, it appeared that immature Chilkat kings, after spending their first year in the Chilkat River, were heading out to sea in reasonably healthy numbers, but they weren’t coming back to spawn as numerous as in the recent past. In other words, they were not surviving their adult years out in the ocean.

There are a few possible explanations for this. Climate change may be disrupting their food supply–the warm water “blob” out in the Gulf of Alaska, for example. There may be more predators out there, which might also be related to climate change. They are being over-harvested by commercial or sport anglers, perhaps unintentionally as by-catch. Or, it could be a combination of these factors, or something else entirely.

There isn’t a lot that we can do in the short term to address the problem of poor open ocean survival (#3 in the list above). But what we could do was try and increase fish survival through stage #4—safely returning to the natal spawning grounds. And indeed, it appears that more kings are now making it back from the ocean, through the gauntlet of human anglers, to spawn and lay eggs in the Chilkat River watershed.

Next time, we’ll talk about some of the other challenges faced by our Chilkat River king salmon, specifically with regard to freshwater spawning and rearing habitat right here at home.

Editor’s note: The second part of this series can be found here.