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Fish Board agenda includes Unuk chinook measures: Local sport chinook fisheries could see substantial changes

Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan’s sport fishermen will watch closely in coming days as the Alaska Board of Fisheries selects regulatory plans for Southeast Alaska chinook salmon. The proposed regulations follow poor chinook return forecasts from the Department of Fish and Game for several Southeast Alaska rivers, including projected chinook returns to the nearby Unuk River.

The proposed action plan for the Unuk includes both sport-specific and commercial-specific options.

Unuk River chinook had met department escapement goals for 35 years, until 2012. Despite management actions by the department, chinook stocks have dropped off steeply since then. The department has since forecasted a 2018 run of 865 fish — less than half of the lower limit of their escapement range for the Unuk. 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 three potential sport options for the Unuk are vastly different from one another. They span from the “status quo” option, which constitutes no change from 2017, to Option C, which would substantially limit sport chinook harvests in the Ketchikan area. The options are suggestions from the department and are subject to modification by the board.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game in October recommended that the Alaska Board of Fisheries designate the Unuk River chinook stock as a “stock of management concern.” The board will consider that stock-of-concern recommendation at its meeting that begins Thursday in Sitka.

Board of Fisheries Chair John Jensen said that he expects a strong response from the board regarding chinook throughout Southeast Alaska.

“We have to do something,” Jensen said. “We probably won’t go status quo, is my guess.”

Russell Thomas, who operates a group of fishing lodges in the Ketchikan area, also noted the severity of the issue, though he said that he preferred the status-quo plan or Option B over the more restrictive Option C.

“The situation is pretty dire — for everybody,” he said.

According to Thomas, while king salmon restrictions alone might not be problematic for the charter business, the damage can add up when taken along with restrictions on other species like rockfish and halibut.

“I don’t think you can look at them by themselves,” he said. “If you start to take those in combination with one another, it makes it really unattractive for people to come up at that time of year.”

Restricting sport harvests would also affect the sector of the charter business that caters to cruise ship passengers. According to Thomas, the most restrictive action plan would force charter boats to travel farther to access legal areas, which can take a chunk out of a trip that lasts only a few hours.

The restrictions could affect sport fishing by locals, as well, including the Ketchikan CHARR King Salmon Derby.

“We didn’t have to make any drastic changes to it last year,” Derby Coordinator Michael Briggs said of the derby’s 70th year. “We hope to not have to make too many drastic changes to it this year.”

Briggs said the derby committee is considering changes to the derby, including fishing location and scheduling, though this will depend on the Board of Fish decision.

He added that the derby is willing to make some concessions for the overall good of the stock, but that canceling the derby is not currently on the table.

The details of the proposed options, and their effects on popular sport fishing areas, are described below.

West Behm Canal

The “status quo” option leaves the West Behm Canal as it was — from April 1 through Aug. 14, anglers are allowed one chinook greater than 28 inches long per day, while nonresidents are limited to three chinook annually.

Option B prohibits the retention of chinook in the northern half of West Behm from April 1 - Aug. 14, and leaves the southern part of West Behm — an area that includes Camaano Point, Survey Point and Clover Pass — as they were. The southern cutoff is a line between Mike Point and Indian Point.

Option C prohibits chinook retention in all of West Behm Canal from April 1 to Aug. 14, with the cutoff running from Camano Pt to Survey Pt. According to Thomas, this restriction would be the most significant of those described in the action plan because the areas it affects are highly popular.

Neets Bay falls under regular in-season regulations (one king daily and three annually for nonresidents) under all three options, though Options B and C restrict this area to a couple of miles inside the mouth of the bay.

The regulations regarding Vallenar Bay are consistent across all three plans — a one king limit for all anglers from April 1 to Aug. 14 and a nonresident limit of three kings annually.

Immediate Ketchikan Area

In the “status quo” option, areas just to the southeast of the city of Ketchikan, like Mountain Point and George Inlet, would fall under the Ketchikan Sport Terminal Harvest Area, which means that April 1 - June 30 would see a bag and possession limit of one chinook of at least 28 inches in length per day and a nonresident limit of three chinook per year, and July 1 - July 31 would have a bag and possession limit of six chinook of any size for all anglers and no annual limit.

In options B and C, these areas would fall under the one chinook of 28 inches or greater per day, and an annual limit of three chinook.

Herring Bay has its own special regulations under Options B and C. Under these options, for the months of June and July there is a bag and possession limit of six chinook, and no annual limit.

East Behm Canal

In the status quo option, much of the Southeast Behm Canal is closed to all salmon fishing from April 1 - Aug. 14 — the restricted area ends at Point Nelson in the south. Option B prohibits retaining chinook throughout the entire Southeast Behm Canal from April 1 - Aug. 14, including Alava. Option C prohibits all salmon fishing throughout East Behm Canal and around the northern tip of Revillagigedo Island year-round.

Northeast Behm Canal remains closed to salmon fishing year-round in all three plans.

Under Option B there is an area of Revillagigedo Channel outside the mouth of the Canal in which no chinook retention is permitted. The area stretches from Middy and Lucky points to Beaver, Rosen and Quandra points. The area is extended under Option C, reaching up to Reef and Carroll points.

Fish and Game is encouraging the public to review the draft plans and provide feedback to the department in anticipation of the Board of Fisheries meeting. The action plans can be found on the Department of Fish and Game website at www.adfg.alaska.gov.  

While the deadline for submitting public comments regarding this issue has passed, comments can be faxed to the board, mailed in or submitted in person at the meeting in Sitka. Comments are limited to 10 single-sided pages, and five single-sided pages after the start of deliberations.

The meeting begins on Thursday at Sitka’s Centennial Hall.