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

King runs on the rise, though not yet "healthy"


October 10, 2019 | View PDF

CTC stands for the Chinook Technical Committee of the Pacific Salmon Commission, responsible for monitoring and managing kings coastwide.

Preliminary estimates show that Chilkat king salmon are expected to meet escapement goal for the first time since 2015, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game research biologist Brian Elliot-though he cautions the Southeast "(is) certainly not out of the woods yet."

The 2019 escapement estimates that 1,950 king salmon above age five will reach their spawning grounds in the Chilkat River. That number is generated through the mark-recapture survey Elliot conducts each summer. In June and July, the department tagged 259 kings for release in the lower Chilkat River, the most since 2011. In August, when Elliot and his staff twice conducted spawning ground surveys, they found 404 Chilkat kings. Of them, 36 were marked from months earlier, which gives the department a percentage of the total run to estimate.

Actual escapement results will be finalized by Dec. 1, Elliot said.

This year's run was distinguished by its larger-than-average size: six-year old kings averaging 36 inches long and 40 to 50 pounds, Elliot said.

"(It) looked like they were feeding in the ocean much better than they had in prior years," he added.

From 2012 to 2015, what one climatologist termed "the blob," a patch of unusually warm water formed in the Gulf of Alaska that spread along the west coast, cooked ocean temperatures and poorly impacted marine life. "It looks like those warm pockets in the ocean have oscillated back to cooler temperatures, so that might be more favorable to the age class that's coming back," Elliot said. "Cooler water benefits Chinook (king) salmon."

Elliot noted that the Tahini River was "especially productive." Field crews found 263 spawned out carcasses there when water levels decreased in late August.

Last year, the Alaska Board of Fisheries labeled Chilkat kings, along with kings in the King Salmon and Unuk rivers, "stocks of concern" after they failed to meet escapement goals for six of the past seven years. In response, fisheries across the Southeast increased commercial sport and subsistence restrictions aimed at protecting kings.

Fish and Game area management biologist Nicole Zeiser, who took her post this year, said it's hard to say if management restrictions had a significant impact on preserving kings.

"Last year was the first year the department followed an action plan adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries that outlined strict management measures to reduce harvest on the Chilkat River run," she said. "I can safely say that this year, we were more conservative than the Board of Fish action plan, implementing further restrictions on area and time than what has been done in prior years. I feel we made the escapement goal due to a region-wide effort to reduce the harvest of Chilkat River king salmon in commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries around southeast."

Reported commercial and sport king harvest this year were at an all-time low of 3%, which included one gillnet tag recovery last September.

Fish and Game monitors 11 king systems for escapement throughout Southeast. Although all escapement estimates are considered preliminary until the 2019 data has been analyzed, Elliot said that only seven of the systems are expected to make the escapement goal, including the Blossom, Keta, Unuk, Chilkat, Alsek, and Situk rivers, along with Andrew Creek. Systems that will most likely miss the lower bound of the escapement goal include the Chickamin, Stikine, Taku, and King Salmon rivers.

Danny Pardee, a gillnetter from Haines for 22 years, estimated that management restrictions have cost the Haines gillnet fleet tens of thousands of dollars a year in lost opportunity.

"Just because of the time and area that we used to be able to fish," he said. "It's nice to see them rebounding for sure."

He said now his main concern is dry, warm winters.

"The lack of snowfall is concerning, because it insulates the ice and the eggs that are trying to mature in this freshwater system," Pardee said. "We're starting to see warm dry winters. We can start to see mass freezes where these king salmon eggs are trying to survive during the winter."

As of now, the Chilkat Kings are still labeled as a stock of concern. Typically a stock of concern needs to make escapement for three consecutive years before the Alaska Board of Fisheries will consider discontinuing the status, according to Philip Richards, Fish and Game supervisor of king stock assessment.

Elliot said that the 2019 Chilkat king run "is certainly cause for optimism because this is the first turnaround in abundance in four years." But the stock faces a major hurdle: parent escapement years from 2016 to 2018, which were the lowest escapement years on record when a reduced number of juveniles were produced.

"If this trend can continue for the next four to five years, then the Chilkat (king) stock could be deemed healthy and back on its feet," Elliot said. "We are certainly not out of the woods yet."


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