Fish and Game has canceled king salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska for the remainder of the summer because of record-low stock production, ADF&G announced in a Monday afternoon emergency order.
Fishermen will not be able to retain king salmon in any Southeast salt waters from Aug. 10-Sept. 30. The emergency order applies to both commercial and sport fishermen.
King salmon will not be accepted at this weekend’s Golden North Salmon Derby, which will take place as planned but with some changes to awards.
State law tasks Fish and Game with protecting the sustainability of salmon fisheries and many Southeast stocks are experiencing record-low productions.
“Largely, the priority is preserving Chinook salmon for Southeast Alaska’s stocks,” ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Charles O. Swanton said.
Fish and Game describes the regulations as “extreme management measures.”
“Many salmon stocks that contribute to Southeast Alaska fisheries are exhibiting extremely poor production and will not meet escapement goals or management objectives in 2017,” the emergency order reads.
Fish and Game sets a guideline number, called an “escapement goal,” of spawning king salmon they say a river system needs to keep a population healthy. On the Taku River south of Juneau, Fish and Game hopes to see between 19,000 and 36,000 returning fish.
If in-season estimates come in above that number, Fish and Game sometimes liberalizes regulations. If it’s under 19,000? They have to consider tighter restrictions on fishermen.
In March, Fish and Game forecasted about 13,300 spawning king salmon to return to the Taku River. Because of the low estimate, king salmon fishing around Juneau was shut down from April 15-June 14. In-season numbers for the Taku River weren’t immediately available.
Early-summer restrictions were aimed to protect salmon returning to rivers this year, but with many of those fish already upriver from fishermen, Swanton said Monday’s emergency order was enacted to protect “feeder kings” which won’t spawn until 2018 or 2019.
“We’ve had substantial restrictions all across the board to try and address what we believe was a poor forecast for 2017,” Swanton said. “We took restrictions to turn around and try and address that as best as possible, and they weren’t enough. Now we’re looking at returns coming back in 2018 and to some extent 2019.”
It’s not yet clear why so few kings are spawning in Southeast this summer, though scientists do believe it has something to do with a decrease in survival rates during the first year of a salmon’s life in the ocean.
Commercial trollers cut short
The emergency order is bad news for Southeast commercial trollers, who won’t receive a second king salmon opening this summer.
Rules put in place by the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty allow a certain number of wild king salmon to be caught by Southeast trollers every year. After winter and spring fisheries, about 99,000 “treaty fish” remained to be caught.
Roughly 70 percent of those were caught by fishermen in a three-day opening in early July. Typically, the remaining 30 percent — which, this year amounts to about 31,000 fish — are caught in a second king opening, but because of Monday’s emergency order, that won’t happen.
Alaskan fishermen have access to salmon which spawn in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, California and Oregon. Because fish from different parts of the Northwest mix in Alaska waters, there’s no way to selectively harvest only fish from healthy populations.
Oregon and Washington stocks are actually in a surplus while many Southeast and B.C.-bound fish are not making it home to spawn.
“What some folks don’t understand is we don’t have a means to differentially harvest stocks that have a surplus versus stocks that may not have a surplus,” Swanton said. “… Southeast Alaska fishermen are going to forego an additional opportunity to harvest 30,000 fish, thereabouts, of which a portion of those fish would be destined for our own streams next year.”
Derby is still on
The emergency order won’t stop the Golden North Salmon Derby, which will go on with some rule changes Aug. 11, 12 and 13.
The derby is an annual competition and scholarship fundraiser in its 71st year. Competitors buy tickets to compete for the biggest fish landed and for other special prizes. This year’s top prize includes 10,000 cash and an assortment of gift cards and trophies.
Golden North co-chair Doug Larson said by phone Monday that all 71 big fish prizes will still be awarded, but because of Fish and Game’s emergency order, there will be no king salmon retention allowed in the derby and no king salmon will be awarded prizes. Fish and Game is not making an exemption to their emergency order for the derby.
Since king salmon are typically larger than coho, Larson expects the leaderboard to consist mainly of cohos.
“Our prizes will remain the same, we’ll have the 71 prizes for the biggest fish, which obviously this year will be cohos,” Larson said. “I think what you’re going to see is we have smaller fish in the top 71.”
The top 13 fish in 2016’s derby were all king salmon, but there were actually more cohos in the top 70 than kings.
Cohos are more abundant around Juneau this time of year than king salmon, and if rumors on the dock are any indication, Larson said the fish will be out in force for the derby.
“The word on the street is the coho numbers are up and we’ll see a lot of cohos conquering the derby,” Larson said. “It’s always possible that some people will say, ‘Well, if I can’t keep a king salmon, I am not going to fish the Derby,’ but like I said, everything is the same as far as what prizes people can win. … It’s for a good cause and with or without king salmon in the mix. It’s going to be a great derby.”