Board of Fisheries set to take up Yukon-Kuskokwim issues

Years of declining king salmon stocks will control the Alaska Board of Fisheries’ Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim meeting in Fairbanks set for Jan. 12-16.

Since the last AYK meeting in 2013, the board and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have put a tight leash on Yukon and Kuskokwim fisheries. Villagers along both rivers need ways to keep fed and keep paid, but simultaneously ask for even stricter controls on king salmon, especially on the Kuskokwim where middle and upper rivers users are seeing even less of the already-scarce fish.

The major Kuskokwim proposals aim to tweak the king salmon management framework for fairer subsistence harvest. Bethel-area fishermen catch up to 80 percent of the river’s total, already below the amount needed for subsistence. Proposed fixes include installing a first-ever subsistence permit system, creating inriver goals for chinook, and tightening the trigger for commercial openings.

Management during low abundance of kings hobbled the 2015 Kuskokwim season.

The Kuskokwim River produced some surplus chinook for subsistence, but nowhere near the official amount needed for subsistence, or ANS. The ANS, a number set by the Board of Fisheries, is 67,200 to 109,800, and hasn’t been met in five years. The average subsistence harvest is 84,000.

ADFG estimates the Kuskokwim River chinook salmon subsistence harvest in 2015 was between 17,000 and 25,000.

The Bethel Test Fishery measures the run of king salmon as it comes in, but is not as accurate as a sonar counter, which the department likely cannot afford with budget cutbacks looming for state agencies.

Several proposals want to use the test fishery to base restrictions that will allow upriver harvest.

The Orutsaramiut Native Council proposed that no subsistence fishing be allowed in the river at all until 50 percent of the forecasted kings have passed the Bethel Test Fishery, reserving the other 50 percent for upriver users.

Two proposals, submitted by the Kuskokwim Native Association and the Stony-Holitna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, ask that an in-river goal be set above the Bethel Test Fishery.

An in-river goal, they theorize, will spread more salmon to the middle and upper river. By setting the in-river goal above the Bethel Test Fishery, they believe more salmon will work their way upriver rather than being caught in the comparatively population heavy Bethel area.

The Stony-Holitna committee also requests that the board create a first-ever subsistence permit system to make the limited chinook more available to middle and upper river users. ADFG would be able to restrict licenses and dole them out evenly in times of low abundance, the committee believes.

Yukon proposals, also impacted by chinook conservation measures, seek to stretch commercial fishing opportunities by allowing new gear types and even creating a fishery for new species.

The weak 2015 outlook for Yukon chinook coincided with a below forecast chum salmon run. The 2015 summer chum salmon preseason estimate was 1.8 million to 2.4 million fish, leaving 800,000 to 1,400,000 for commercial harvest. Only 358,000 chum were harvested in 2015, alongside an escapement of 1.3 million.

The trick is to catch the chum without killing kings.

“The trend lately has been to find alternative gear types that allow for live chinook releases,” said John Linderman, a fish and game coordinator for ADFG’s Commercial Fisheries Division.

The department has created several restrictions on the mesh size, depth, length, and allowable time for gillnets, which are the historical favorite for both subsistence and commercial Yukon fishermen. In their place, cleaner but less effective dipnets, beach seines, and fish wheels are used.

One proposal would create a purse seine fishery for Yukon commercial fishermen, which would avoid the incidental chinook deaths gillnets tend to cause. Similar purse seine programs are used for hatchery chinook on the Columbia River but have no history on the Yukon or with wild chinook stock.

The prospect could prove uneconomical for the delta residents. Conversion to purse seining operations would be expensive, and only allowed in times of low chinook abundance. The limited opportunity might not justify the cost.

Kwik’pak Fisheries, owned by the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, submitted a proposal to create a pink salmon fishery for the Yukon.

Pink runs are fairly strong in the region — 513,599 pinks passed the Pilot Station sonar counter in 2014 — but also difficult to plan around chinook avoidance measures, as sizable runs come only every other year.

01/06/2016 - 1:50pm