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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
On Tuesday the Alaska Board of Fisheries passed its Unuk River chinook salmon action plan for 2018. Among its contents are the most stringent chinook regulations in recent decades for the sport and spring troll fisheries that affect Unuk River chinook. The vote was 6-0.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had provided the board with three potential regulatory options for each fishery, in ascending severity: Option A (status quo), Option B, and Option C. The board approved modified versions of Option B for the sport and troll fisheries, and Option A for net and subsistence fisheries.
The regulations were spurred by extremely low forecasted 2018 chinook returns for several rivers, including the Unuk River, the mouth of which is located northeast of Revillagigedo Island.
The Unuk River’s chinook have experienced steep population losses since 2012, and the problem appears to have recently worsened. The department’s 2018 run forecast for the stock — 865 fish — fell far short of the lower limit of its escapement range for the Unuk. The Unuk’s escapement goal range is between 1,800 and 3,800 fish. (Escapement ranges are goals set by the department for the number of fish that survive and return to their spawning streams. The goals are designed to allow for fishing while ensuring the stocks’ survival.)
The board has since labeled the Unuk stock a “stock of management concern,” a designation reflecting serious concern from the board.
As previously mentioned, the new, substantial regulations for 2018 will primarily affect the sport and spring troll fisheries in portions of the Ketchikan area.
The board selected a modified version of Option B for the 2018 chinook sport fishery in the Ketchikan area. The plan represents the strictest chinook sport restrictions the area has seen since at least the early 1980s.
In short, the plan consists of three levels of fishing restrictions which grow more intense in areas believed to contain wild chinook. More severely regulated areas can generally be found closer to the mouth of the Unuk River.
The regulations differ significantly from those of 2017 in three ways.
First, the plan prohibits chinook retention from April 1 through Aug. 14 in a large section of the West Behm Canal (from Mike and Indian points north), and in the southern portion of the Southeast Behm Canal, extending northeast to Middy and Lucky points and south to Beaver, Rosen and Quadra points. These areas can be seen in red on the adjacent map.
The plan also closes the North Behm Canal to salmon fishing year round, which has been closed seasonally in the past.
The third major addition is a large area, shown in yellow on the map, with a bag limit of one chinook longer than 28 inches for all anglers, and an annual limit of three chinook for nonresidents.
The Option B enacted by the board this week is not exactly the same Option B that was proposed in the department’s December draft plan — it underwent some modifications during the Board of Fisheries process. The previously mentioned yellow area was originally proposed to designate a three-chinook annual limit for all anglers, but that limit now only to applies to nonresidents. The area’s boundaries were modified slightly as well, reducing its size: The line along its eastern border originally began in the north at Niblack Point, but it now begins at Caamano Point.
Kelly Reppert, the department’s Ketchikan-area sport fishery management biologist, said that the board’s decision was appropriate given the seriousness of the issues facing the chinook.
“I think [Option B] is a nice balance of the right opportunity while reducing harvest,” she said.
The board also opted for a modified version of Option B for the chinook troll fishery in the Ketchikan area. Most notably, the plan entails severe restrictions for the spring season, which is set to open May 1.
The spring troll fishery will be limited to “terminal harvest areas,” areas near hatcheries and release sites, and areas with low wild chinook harvests. A terminal harvest area is defined by the department as “an area where fishermen … may harvest segregated hatchery returns.”
While the department has not formally announced the status of specific areas, Grant Hagerman, a troll fishery biologist for the department, provided information regarding the regulations to the Daily News in an interview.
“I think for this initial year, the department is looking to probably follow very closely what this plan is directing us to do. And that’s basically restricting to very, very terminal areas,” Hagerman said. “I’m seriously doubting that there will be any extended areas in any parts of the inside, outside of the THAs.”
Hagerman listed Gravina Shore, Kendrick Bay, Stone Rock Bay and West Rock as popular Ketchikan-area locations that probably will not open for the spring troll, as proportionally high levels of wild chinook have been harvested in these areas.
He said that the department plans to have spring troll openings in Neets Bay, but couldn’t provide details about other potential fishing areas.
Hagerman added that if escapement levels improve following the 2018 season, the department will likely consider easing regulations in coming years.
The department plans to release a management plan for the spring troll in April, preceding the season’s May 1 opening date. The plan will include more detailed information about which areas will open, and could indicate when the openings will take place.
The department will continue to open specific fishing areas by emergency order each week in the spring.
The 2018-19 winter season’s major change is an early close date of March 15, more than a month prior to its ordinary date of closure. The season opened on Oct. 11. Remaining seasonal guideline harvest levels will be carried over to the spring and summer seasons.
The summer troll season will maintain the status quo. As usual, its first retention period will open July 1, targeting 70 percent of the troll chinook allocation remaining from winter and spring. The second retention period opens in August, targeting whatever portion of the allocation remains. And while in 2017 all king fisheries closed on Aug. 10 by emergency order, that isn’t part of 2018’s plan.
Hagerman expressed support for the action plan, calling it “the first big step” from the board in restoring chinook stocks to their previous levels.
“Hopefully ocean conditions are also improving,” Hagerman said. “But the one thing that we can control on these stocks is how much of them we harvest.”