Angoon residents petition for Southeast salmon closures

The U.S. secretaries of Interior and Agriculture are considering a petition from the Angoon village corporation to exert federal jurisdiction over state waters in Southeast to protect subsistence harvests of sockeye salmon.

Following an unprecedented joint meeting of the Federal Subsistence Board and its Southeast Regional Advisory Council March 21 to March 23 in Juneau, the board forwarded its sealed recommendation to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The decision could come within weeks — possibly before the start of the season — on the extraterritorial jurisdiction petition filed in May 2010 by Kootznoowoo Inc.

The petition includes a number of potential remedies for the secretaries to consider, including: closing state fishing districts in Chatham, Icy and Peril straits from June until mid-August; reducing the fishing area or shutting down the Hidden Falls Hatchery just southwest of Angoon across Chatham Strait on Baranof Island; and ending state enforcement of subsistence bag limits within the Admiralty Wilderness Monument Area “until the state is in compliance with federal law” for ensuring subsistence priority is met.

The closures are intended to allow enough salmon escapement into several streams and lakes both on Admiralty Island and across Chatham Strait from Angoon, where subsistence harvests traditionally take place, as well as to provide up to 250 sockeye per household.

The exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction is allowed under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which sets out the priority for subsistence use on federal lands.

Under ANILCA, the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture have authority to regulate activities not occurring on federal lands in order to protect the subsistence priority, including to “restrict or eliminate” fishing in state marine waters defined as seaward of the mean high tide line.

Commercial users, particularly seiners, in Southeast are nervous about the petition because of its potential effects on fishing areas that produced a harvest of more than 25.3 million salmon in 2011, mostly pinks.

The combined ex-vessel value of the 2011 purse seine harvest in Chatham Strait (District 12) and Icy Strait (District 14), was about $43.3 million based on Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports.

The total northern Southeast management area produced a harvest of some 45.6 million pinks, an all-time record, in 2011. The pink salmon harvest was about four times the 10-year average, but in the mixed stock fishery there was also a near-record amount of sockeye taken (212,057).

The board announced before the meeting that its recommendation to Vilsack and Salazar would not be made public, only adding to the suspense of what action may come.

The Southeast Regional Advisory Council, or RAC, did make a public recommendation to the full Federal Subsistence Board to defer action on the petition for three years to allow the state, board and local residents and organizations to achieve a series of milestones and management actions to address the Kootznoowoo concerns.

Regarding the three questions it was asked to address by the board, the RAC determined Angoon is a subsistence community under ANILCA, that it is “more likely than not,” that commercial salmon fishing is reducing sockeye salmon returning to federal lands and that the subsistence priority for Angoon residents is not being met.

However, the RAC recommended to the board that a local solution should be developed, and laid out a series of actions that should be taken by the state Department of Fish and Game to provide more salmon for subsistence harvest.

Those actions include: establishing regulatory closures for certain terminal areas important to subsistence harvest, developing proposals for the Board of Fisheries and escapement goals for the affected streams and lakes, and performing genetic stock identification studies to determine how much of the sockeye intercepted by salmon seiners is bound for Angoon subsistence areas.

In a staff report provided to the board, the lack of genetic identification of sockeye stocks prevented a conclusive finding that the salmon purse seine fisheries are impacting subsistence use.

The staff report did note, though, that sockeye escapements hit record numbers in 2008 and 2010 when the seine fishery was limited or closed because of poor pink salmon returns.

In its presentation to the Federal Subsistence Board, the state of Alaska reported that it has taken steps to prioritize subsistence harvests for Angoon, including limiting commercial openings until after the majority of subsistence harvest has occurred, and using its emergency order authority to close four miles of waters at Basket Bay northwest of Angoon across Chatham Strait and the nine miles from Parker Point south to Angoon at Mitchell Bay.

By regulation, the first seine opening may not occur until the third Sunday in June. The only open area then is a one-mile stretch of beach at Point Augusta where Icy Strait meets Chatham Strait, which serves as an index fishery to measure run strength.

To protect early runs during June and July, ADFG monitors for widespread distribution of fish stocks throughout the inside waters, and doesn’t ramp up aggressive fishing effort until late July or early August when the pinks are running heavy. Subsistence surveys show that 80 percent or more of the harvest has typically been taken by mid-July.

In 2011, the department’s conservative approach in July led to record pink salmon escapement numbers in addition to the record harvest taken by seiners.

The Kootznoowoo petition is just the third petition seeking federal jurisdiction over state waters to reach the cabinet secretaries. The two prior petitions — one filed in 2004 regarding the Area M fishery at the end of the Alaska Peninsula and another in 2008 for the herring sac roe fishery — were both denied for not meeting the threshold for exerting extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ.

Angoon residents have been working to restrict the purse seine fishery in northern Southeast since at least 2001 when the sockeye return to Kanalku Lake crashed. Kanalku Bay and Lake is the closest subsistence area to Angoon, and just 229 sockeye were estimated to have reached the Kanalku spawning grounds in 2001.

The following year, ADFG asked Angoon residents to voluntary close subsistence fishing at Kanalku, and for the next four seasons Angoon residents shifted their efforts to bays and lakes across Chatham Strait on Baranof and Chichagof Island.

In the meantime, Kootznoowoo submitted proposals to the Board of Fisheries during the 2006 and 2009 cycles requesting changes in the purse seine management plan to protect sockeye for subsistence harvest. In the 2009 cycle, a proposal developed by the subsistence division of ADFG recommended creating a local area management plan for Angoon, but was denied by the Board of Fisheries.

“The communities led the effort to rebuild it (Kanalku salmon run), and at the same time the state has allowed commercial effort to increase and encroach,” said Peter Naoroz, president of Kootznoowoo Inc. “People have chosen to focus on saying we’re absolutely looking to close the Falls (hatchery) and these seining areas. The more modest proposals we put in were rejected by the Board of Fish.”

Things came to a head in 2009, when State Sen. Albert Kookesh and three others were arrested and charged with exceeding their bag limits for 15 sockeye while fishing a beach seine operation at Kanalku Bay.

Four months after Kootznoowoo filed its original extraterritorial jurisdiction petition, a Superior Court judge in Sitka dismissed the charges against Kookesh and others in September 2010, finding that the state did not follow the Administrative Procedures Act when it established the subsistence bag limits.

Naoroz said that one way or another, the state has recognized its responsibility and made public commitments to address the subsistence priority for Angoon.

“This is an opportunity to work with state and federal managers whether the petition is voted up or down,” he said. “That’s going to happen no matter what.”

 

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/12/2012 - 9:38am