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By JOHN LEE McLAUGHLIN
Daily News Staff Writer
A faltering boom in southern king salmon stocks has helped slash the so-called treaty chinook harvest limit this year for fishermen in Southeast Alaska.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game this past week sent out a series of announcements detailing the 2017 all-gear harvest limit of non-Alaska hatchery produced kings for the region, the “treaty” chinook that include wild fish and kings from out-of-state hatcheries.
Under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the all-gear harvest limit is produced by the Chinook Technical Committee of the Pacific Salmon Commission.
Fewer treaty fish this year is largely due to fewer chinook at the Columbia River, which splits western Oregon and Washington and has seen a recent boom in kings, according to Juneau-based state fishery scientist John Carlile, the Alaska co-chair of the Chinook Technical Committee.
“What we tend to catch in Southeast Alaska are what they call ‘far-north migrating stocks,’” Carlile said. “A lot of (chinook) stocks in the Pacific Northwest and Canada go out from their native rivers and they turn north, basically, and come up to the Gulf of Alaska to rear, and then they migrate back down the coast to spawn.
Even though we’re up here in Southeast Alaska,” he said, “we catch fish from Oregon, Washington an British Columbia.”
The 2017 all-gear harvest limit in Southeast Alaska is 209,700 treaty chinook, which falls about 146,000 fish short of last year’s limit of 355,600 fish.
The all-gear limit is further divvied among the varied fisheries in the region, with the commercial troll fishery getting 80 percent of the catch (154,880), after purse seine (9,020), drift gillnet (6,080) and set gillnet (1,000) fishery allocations are made. Sport anglers get the remaining 20 percent of the catch (38,720).
All of the fisheries this year — except set gillnet fishermen, who always get 1,000 fish — have been handed significant cuts in treaty chinook.
Commercial troll fishermen will have about 108,000 fewer treaty kings to fish out this year. In 2016, the fishery was allowed 263,197 treaty kings.
The decline is largely because booming chinook stocks at the Columbia River have waned, Carlile said, noting that the summer and fall populations have produced record high numbers of fish, most notably from 2013 to 2015, with a slight drop in 2016.
“What we’re seeing now is we’re sort of down for those stocks, those upper Columbia stocks,” Carlile said, “which, you know, they contribute a significant chunk to our fishery, like in the last couple of years when they were booming, they were up to 40 percent of the fishery.”
“Now, (the stocks) are back down to average to slightly below average levels, so it’s not like they’re crashing,” he said. “There is still quite a bit of fish, it’s just that compared to what we have been in recent years, it’s definitely a decline.”
Aside from the Columbia River, the drop in treaty chinook also is caused by a general decline in Southeast Alaska chinook stocks that are monitored as part of the coastwide population and that contribute to treaty harvest levels.
“Of those (stocks), seven make up the majority of Southeast Alaska,” said Grant Hagerman, the Sitka-based Fish and Game regional troll fishery biologist.
“Those are what we commonly refer to as our driver stocks, Hagerman said. “Productivity definitely is cyclical, but over the past year, productivity for those driver stocks has decreased.”
Hagerman and Carlile said other chinook stocks in Canadian waters measured about the same as in recent years, perhaps with a slight increase.
Both said the only increase for U.S. waters has come from chinook of Washington state, though that is “obviously not enough to compensate for the decrease in the other driver stocks,” Hagerman said.
“It’s not so much doom and gloom in all of these driver stocks,” he said. “As I mentioned, it’s really those Columbia (River) fish that have made an impact on this decrease.”
In Southeast, treaty-allocation driver stocks include Unuk River chinook near Ketchikan, Hagerman said. About 800 chinook are expected to return to the river this year, according to Fish and Game. The number falls well below an escapement goal of 1,800 to 3,800 fish to protect future stocks.
The Unuk River met the chinook escapement goal for 35 consecutive years, until recently, when 2015 was the only year in the past five to reach the goal, according to Fish and Game.
There is no commercial limit in spring on non-treaty chinook — the fish that come from in-state hatcheries, which are the target of the spring fishing season — as only treaty fish count toward the Pacific Salmon Treaty harvest limit of the year, according to Fish and Game.
Meanwhile, a slow winter commercial troll season is still underway and will end when fishermen either catch a treaty fish cap of 45,000 chinook — which hasn’t yet happened, and might not, according to Hagerman — or reach the April 30 season cutoff.
With the target on Alaska-hatchery chinook, Hagerman said, the spring commercial trolling season then starts. A summer commercial troll quota will be produced in late-June, based on the number of treaty fish remaining and the number of non-treaty chinook caught, he said.
Regional fishing limits and restrictions have been adopted for commercial and sport chinook fishing, Hagerman said, and Fish and Game will be making regular announcements in regard to other commercial restrictions as the season continues.
For more information contact a local Fish and Game management office, or visit adfg.alaska.gov.