Board denies emergency petition on Copper River kings

  • Alaska Airlines Capt. Trent Davey carries a 55-pound Copper River King salmon on May 18, 2012, as the annual first air shipment of the prized salmon arrived from Alaska early Friday morning in Seattle. Celebrations are planned for the first Copper River kings in Seattle and Anchorage this year, but the commercial fishery could be sharply curtailed if the run is as poor as forecast by state biologists. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Board of Fisheries denied a request on May 17 from the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee to set more restrictions on the Copper River commercial fishery to protect king salmon.

The Fairbanks AC petitioned the board to further regulate the commercial fishery in the area after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast a small number of kings to return to the stream system — about 29,000, with the minimum escapement for the drainage set at 24,000 fish.

ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten initially denied the petition as qualifying as an emergency under regulations, but the board elected to take up the petition for discussion and ultimately voted to agree with his decision.

Subsistence, personal use and sportfishermen also target kings on the river system, which winds its way 290 miles up northward to headwaters near Slana, on the north edge of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

When the forecast came out, ADFG issued an emergency order closing the sportfishery for king salmon on the river, prohibiting retention of kings in the popular Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery and restricting subsistence harvest of kings to two per fisherman using dipnets or fish wheels between June 1 and July 15.

Fishwheels also have to be closely attended, which creates a burden for the fishermen, the Fairbanks AC argued.

“This will be a significant departure from historical methods used in this fishery,” the group’s petition states. “…It is clear that the upriver fishers are going to take significant actions to help achieve the escapement goal.”

The AC asked the board to find the department’s decision to restrict the inriver fisheries but not the commercial fishery as an emergency, which allows the board to act out of cycle.

In its petition, the AC asked for the board to require the department to use genetic information about the strength of the Gulkana River kings for at least the first two commercial openings, restricting the commercial fishing area, restricting nets to 29 meshes deep, closing the fishery after July 1 if the commercial harvest exceeds the forecast objective, prohibiting the sale of king salmon bycatch and requiring incidentally caught kings to be surrendered to the state and prohibiting retention of kings for commercial fishermen taking home fish as their subsistence harvest, known as “home pack.”

However, the board voted 4-3 not to take up the petition as an emergency. The members opposing the emergency finding said they thought the fisheries managers had enough tools to manage the commercial fishery to maximize sockeye harvest while keeping an eye on king salmon.

Like most systems in Alaska, the Copper River has seen historic low returns for king salmon in the past decade. This year’s poor return was expected, so doesn’t qualify as an emergency, said Bert Lewis, the Prince William Sound fisheries management coordinator for the Division of Commercial Fisheries.

Managers missed their king salmon escapement goal in 2016 — only about 11,864 kings made it up into the river system, about half of the lower bound of the sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, according to ADFG data. At the same time, the managers saw an extremely large return of sockeye salmon, leading to additional hours and space, but the harvest was still lower than the previous 10-year average, according to the 2016 season summary.

Lewis told the Board of Fisheries the managers had to provide extra time to the commercial fishery to control overescapement of sockeye.

That likely won’t be the case this year, he said. The total predicted Copper River sockeye salmon run for 2017 is below the recent 10-year average, with about 1.81 million expected to return, according to the 2017 forecast.

“We’ve been fishing at an aggressive schedule because of large sockeye returns for the last couple of years,” he said. “We expect to reduce time … (and) we expect to achieve the SEG.”

The Copper River does not have much of an inseason assessment for king salmon other than reports from anglers and commercial fisheries fish tickets, Lewis said.

The managers reconstruct the run after the season, and while they thought they were in good shape last year because of the solid forecast, the post-season came out lower than they expected, he said.

“Forecasting is inherently uncertain,” he said. “We react inseason as the runs develop. In this case, the indicators continued to suggest we were comfortable where we were. We thought we had an appropriate strategy, and then postseason assessment indicated that it didn’t work out.”

Board members Sue Jeffrey, Robert Ruffner and Orville Huntington and chairman John Jensen voted against accepting the petition. Jeffrey agreed that it didn’t meet the emergency criteria because it wasn’t unforeseen and the managers have the tools to reduce the commercial fishery this season.

“I also know from public comment that the public is concerned about the resource and this region, and I am mindful of that too, but I think we have to consider this seriously and not declare this an emergency unless it is a trend that is ongoing,” she said. “As others have said, I’m sure we will be watching this very carefully.”

Board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voted to support it. The fisheries upriver seem to be unfairly bearing the burden of conservation this season and they have no alternative fisheries, Morisky said. Payton said he understood the managers were considering the long term but the board should consider the present effects as well.

“Though the department states that they don’t think it will affect the long-term sustainability of king salmon stocks, but we have to think about the short term as well,” Payton said.

The Copper River District commercial fishery had its first opening Thursday.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

05/18/2017 - 4:55pm