Early data shows kings missed escapement target
September 29, 2022
The Chilkat king salmon run gave mixed signals this year, falling below the strength of recent years but well above the record low of 2018, according to preliminary state data.
The run narrowly missed the lower bound of the state’s escapement goal, breaking a three-year streak of hitting the target after decades of decline. But Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) fisheries biologist Brian Elliott said the stock is still showing signs of resilience.
“Even though we missed, there’s still a lot of hope that we’ll get on our feet,” Elliott said. “We didn’t miss by much, so it’s not a tragic run like 2018.”
The state’s preliminary escapement estimate for the season was 1,675 fish, just 75 below the target range lower bound of 1,750 fish. The upper bound is 3,500.
Although the run failed to meet the state’s goal, Elliott said it showed “positive signs” — a lot of three- and four-year-old fish. Strong survival of younger fish could indicate more productive runs in the coming years, he said.
In 2018, Chilkat kings, also known as chinooks, hit a record low at fewer than 900 fish. They were designated that year as a stock of concern by the state’s Board of Fisheries.
But the past three years have been a different story. In 2019 the run increased to 2,028 fish and again in 2020 to over 3,000. Last year, an estimated escapement of 2,038 fish fell within the state’s escapement goal range, far exceeding forecasts of a poor run.
Still, the stock has declined from about 6,000 fish in the 1990s.
The below-average run this year was expected, Elliott said. Before the season, the state forecasted an escapement of 1,550 fish. The forecast was below the state’s target because 2017 was a poor run and most spawners are five years old.
Elliott said the department tagged 114 kings of age four years or older in the lower Chilkat River, surveyed 286 fish in spawning grounds at the Tahini River, Kelsall River and Big and Little Boulder creeks and recaptured 10 tags. The stock’s most productive spawning tributary has shifted in the last decade from the Kelsall to the Tahini, Elliott said.
The state will make a final escapement estimate later this fall and will release a 2023 forecast by early December. It’s possible the final estimate — based on data that’s still being analyzed — will be above the escapement target range lower bound. Elliott said the final estimate usually is within 100 fish of the preliminary one.
Another trend that Elliott said continued this year is that the run is composed of a greater proportion of younger fish. Since 2014 king runs from Southeast Alaska down to Washington have been dominated by fish that rear in the marine environment for three years instead of four, Elliott said. Biologists aren’t sure what’s causing that trend.
Elliott said there was a “fairly decent” six-year-old component to this year’s run and he’s hoping the regional trend “will turn around.” Older females are more productive. They lay more eggs and can more effectively move cobble around in spawning grounds, Elliott said.
The state’s forecast will inform management decisions for next year’s fisheries. For four straight years sport fishing for kings has been prohibited in the upper Lynn Canal from April 1 through Dec. 31.
Due to the stock’s decline, Haines Sportsman’s Association annual king salmon derby was canceled in 2015 and since has shifted to a coho salmon contest.
Southeast Alaska has 34 king salmon stocks. Seven have been listed as stocks of concern. This year’s runs up the Taku and Stikine rivers were projected to be the lowest on record.