A king salmon is laid out for inspection by Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the Mike Pusich Douglas Harbor during the Golden North Salmon Derby on Aug. 25, 2019. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

A king salmon is laid out for inspection by Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the Mike Pusich Douglas Harbor during the Golden North Salmon Derby on Aug. 25, 2019. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

My Turn: Decline of king salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska started many decade ago

From the reports I’ve heard about the July 1-14 commercial troll opening, the king salmon for some of the fishermen averaged only 10 to 11 pounds. The trollers “of old” remember a 20- to 30-pound average for the entire season.

The decline of our large king salmon began way before the increase of orca populations. If water temperatures are a factor in king salmon mortality, why is it that other species of salmon and marine mammals seem to be thriving, if only in on- and off-again seasons? Besides catching and discarding king salmon, could it be that the trawl nets also destroy herring, squid, juvenile cod, sand lance, and other small fish that the kings feed on? On the other hand don’t pinks, chums and reds feed primarily on plankton and krill usually found at shallower depths? I think that trawl bycatch is definitely our biggest problem.

For the first time since retiring six years ago from whale watch chartering and fishing in Icy Strait, members of my family and I went on a wildlife viewing charter on July 14. I was amazed at how healthy the waters appeared. We saw herds of sea lions and rafts of sea otters. The chums and pinks were jumping everywhere, and we heard very good catch scores from the purse seiners. The silvers are also showing up in good numbers and size. We were thrilled to see many humpback whales and a pod of about twenty orcas in hunting formation spread out in small groups across the strait.

When at home I monitor the whale watching charter boats on my VHF transceiver. Literally every day for the last three weeks I’ve heard reports of several pods or small groups of orcas spread throughout Icy Strait. In the sixty-plus years of working on the waters of Icy Strait prior to my retirement I never observed more than a couple of pods, or maybe the same pod traversing occasionally through the strait. This is the first summer, in my recollection, that they have shown up daily in great numbers.

There are similarities in the “big industry” fishing problems that we had prior to 1959 and today. Before Alaska became a state the government was paying a bounty on seals, eagles and Dolly Varden. Meanwhile the canneries had many floating and piling salmon traps spread throughout Southeast Alaska that indiscriminately caught all species of salmon. The king salmon were regarded as undesirable for canning and discarded by the thousands. Was the bounty on natural predictors to distract from the real problem? One of the first objectives of statehood was to abolish big industry salmon traps, and of course the bounty.

• Floyd Peterson is a resident of Hoonah.

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