Board of Fisheries to take closer look at Nushagak king salmon plan
The Board of Fisheries passed a proposal to take a chunk out of the king salmon management plan on the Nushagak River, with plans to form a work group to keep discussing user group conflict on the river.
At its meeting in Dillingham dealing with proposals related to the Bristol Bay finfish fisheries on Dec. 2, the board members approved a proposal that amends the management plan for the king salmon run on the Nushagak and Mulchatna rivers.
Several clauses in the plan link closures in the commercial sockeye salmon fishery in the Nushagak District, salmon fishing closures on the Nushagak River and limited subsistence fishing periods if the projected spawning escapement is less than 55,000 kings, the lower end of the river’s escapement goal.
The updated proposal repeals a number of numeric escapement-based trigger points that close fisheries based on the king salmon passage in the river.
The original proposal, submitted by Brian Kraft, would have limited commercial fishing openings in the Nushagak District to no more than 12 hours of fishing per day when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish issues emergency orders restricting the sport fishery, among other restrictions. In his rationale, he wrote that the burden to conserve king salmon is currently on sportfishermen.
“The impact on the number of chinook making it in river is immediately diminished when commercial openers happen,” he wrote. “This is not intended by the (commercial fisherman), but it happens. We need help in preserving the Nushagak chinook run. When the chinook run falls below acceptable escapement numbers, the sport fishery is restricted or potentially closed, yet (commercial fishing) openings remain aggressive.
“The commercial fishery in the Nushagak district, although targeting sockeye, certainly has a by-catch or interception of chinook bound for the Nushagak.”
The Nushagak River, which flows into Bristol Bay just south of Dillingham, hosts a vibrant king salmon sportfishery. Nearby, the commercial sockeye salmon fishery brings in on average 6.4 million sockeye each summer. This year, a banner year for Bristol Bay, the fishermen in the Nushagak District landed about 24.1 million salmon, according to ADFG.
Adding to the complexity of managing the return is a noted inaccuracy in the sonar counter in the Nushagak River, which ADFG acknowledges. In public comments, Michael Link of the Bristol Bay Science and Research Institute noted that recent mark-recapture and acoustic tagging studies found that the sonar was undercounting king salmon by variable degrees.
“In 2017, low early-season sonar-based king salmon passage estimates triggered restrictions on harvest opportunities; subsequent examination of all information suggested the estimates were probably about 50 percent lower than actual,” Link wrote in his comments. “Although the restrictions helped increase king salmon escapement, skepticism grew among users about misplaced certainty in the assessment information.”
ADFG staff opposed the original proposal because it would tie the department’s hands, said Tim Sands, the area management biologist for the Nushagak District. The board amended the proposal to remove sections based on sonar passage numbers, which the ADFG staff then supported, said Forrest Bowers, the director of the Division of Commercial Fisheries.
“There’s some work going on to refine the sonar project,” Bowers said. “We have some concerns about the accuracy of the count there, whether we’re accurately assessing the size of the Nushagak run. This plan has some prescriptive triggers that may not be warranted based on the accuracy of our assessment tool.”
Board member Israel Payton noted that the proposal reduces complexity and gives the Division of Sport Fish more flexibility to protect king salmon stocks based on abundance. He also noted that members of the public had requested the Nushagak River’s king salmon management plan be revisited, especially as ADFG has not planned to reassess the escapement goal.
“The plan has some arbitrary in-river trigger points that aren’t really biological; in my mind, they’re kind of an allocative trigger point,” he said. “It gets rid of those trigger points but still allows the department to manage for the sustainable escapement goal … once again, this doesn’t tie the hands of any commercial fish manager, and in my mind, allow a little more flexibility for the sport fishing manager, or all the manages.”
Board member Robert Ruffner noted that the amendment to the original proposal arose from a board member and stakeholder meeting but that there would be further work on the issue.
“Our anticipation is that over the next 18 months or so, we’re going to work on this, and there is the possibility of bringing something up out of cycle to further flesh this out a little bit,” he said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to work through here.”
A charge statement submitted on Dec. 2 would create a temporary committee to review fisheries recommendations to the board “on a comprehensive solution.”
In the meeting between board members and stakeholders, attendees recognized uncertainty in sonar data and restrictions in the sportfishery without restrictions in the commercial fishery as continuing issues.
ADFG will work with a stakeholder-led study team to review data on the Nushagak River king salmon enumeration and work on updating the goal by March 2020, according ot the charge statement. The work group, which will consist of no more than nine members of the public and three members of the board appointed by board chairman Reed Morisky, will meet before the Board of Fisheries’ October 2019 worksession and help create any proposals to address the issue before the March 2020 statewide meeting.
The board passed the proposal 5-0, with members Fritz Johnson and John Jensen — both commercial fishermen — abstaining for conflict of interest.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].