Kings make escapement
September 9, 2021
For the third year in a row the Chilkat River’s king salmon run has met the state’s escapement goal, according to preliminary estimates.
Between 2012 and 2018, the Chilkat stock failed to hit escapement targets every year but one. The last two years, and now 2021, have been a different story.
“It feels like the Chilkat stock is rebounding. It feels like we’re turning the corner,” said Brian Elliott, research biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The state finished sampling in the Chilkat drainage last week. A final abundance estimate, including an age breakdown, will be made by late October. Elliott expects that number will be between 1,900 and 2,000 fish, a little more than the escapement goal range’s lower bound of 1,750 and well below its 3,500-fish ceiling.
In 2018 the Chilkat stock hit a record low, at fewer than 900 fish, and was designated a stock of concern by the state Board of Fisheries. In 2019 the run increased to 2,028. Researchers suspected 2020 would see another uptick because 2015 was a strong brood year, and most spawners in the Chilkat are 5 years old. They were right: the 2020 estimated count was over 3,000.
But hopes weren’t high for this year due to a poor run in 2016, Elliott said. Researchers forecasted that the 2021 count would be 1,500, a few hundred fish below the minimum target. But to Elliott’s pleasant surprise, the forecast was exceeded.
“We’re hopeful that what we’re seeing is a trend,” Elliott said.
Many factors contribute to salmon population dynamics, but Elliott said low harvest rates might be an explanation for the stock’s rebound over the last few years.
The state has tightened restrictions on fishing for kings in Lynn Canal. In the commercial gillnet fishery, limits have been placed on timing, area and mesh size. Sport fishing for kings has been prohibited in Chilkat Inlet for five years.
“Management this year was very similar to last year, and that seems to have an effect on what happens to the run,” Elliott said. For the past two years, harvest rates have been at an average of 3.3% — “about as low as it gets” — compared to 25% about 10 years ago.
The state’s goal, Elliott said, is to get people fishing for kings again.
When asked how many strong runs would be needed before that goal could be met, Elliott said he’s unsure, but that “if you can get through a full six-year life cycle then that stock should be stabilized.”
In April, state biologist Rich Chapell told the CVN that “at least through 2023, we’re going to have to be pretty careful about harvesting any Chilkat kings to let that weak brood year get up the river and continue to run.”
Since 2014 king runs from Southeast Alaska down to Washington have been dominated by five-year old swimmers, a departure from previous years when most spawners were six years old. Prior to 2014 there were also seven-year-old fish observed but “we don’t talk about those anymore,” Elliott said, adding that researchers aren’t quite sure what has caused fish to return sooner to spawn.
“You want multiple ages in your spawning population...because if one particular age class has a bad year, you need a neighboring age class to pick up the slack,” Elliott said. Biologists are concerned that younger and smaller spawners will mean fewer eggs laid and might bode poorly for future abundance, but research on fecundity is difficult and ongoing, Elliott said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game monitors king stocks in 11 rivers in Southeast Alaska.
Of the region’s three big rivers other than the Chilkat, the Unuk met escapement goals, but the Taku and Stikine didn’t.
The state will release 2022 forecasts for all Southeast stocks by Dec. 1.