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Low Runs of Chinook Salmon in Alaska

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Low Runs of Chinook Salmon in Alaska
How have low Chinook salmon runs affected Alaskans?

This year, many Alaskans in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Cook Inlet and Southeast regions are suffering from the effects of low runs of Chinook salmon. Fishery closures and restrictions necessary for conservation resulted in great burdens on Alaskans who rely on Chinook salmon for food and income. The State of Alaska recognizes the hardships that management restrictions have caused subsistence, commercial, and sport fishermen, as well as guides, local fish processors, and other local and regional businesses.

What areas of Alaska were affected by low Chinook runs?

Chinook salmon runs across the state were, for the most part, well below average. Strict fishery management actions were implemented to meet escapement objectives and many fisheries were curtailed to protect Chinook salmon.

In the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, weak runs of Chinook salmon resulted in extensive restrictive management actions by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) in the subsistence and commercial fisheries. The directed Chinook salmon commercial fishery on the Yukon was closed and the subsistence fishery significantly restricted. On the Kuskokwim River, conservation of Chinook salmon required substantial restriction of the Chinook subsistence fishery and onset of the commercial chum and sockeye salmon fishery was significantly delayed until mid-July.

In Cook Inlet, ADF&G restricted sport fisheries for Chinook salmon in fresh and salt waters. From the onset of the season, a strategy was implemented in the Upper Subdistrict commercial set gillnet fishery where fishing time was structured to maximize sockeye salmon harvest, while limiting Chinook salmon catches until such time that an accurate inseason assessment could be made of the Chinook salmon run. This strategy included opening the set gillnet fishery during regular Monday and Thursday fishing periods, but limiting additional fishing to times when sockeye salmon were abundant on the east side beaches.

In Southeast, the all-gear Chinook salmon harvest limit as defined by the Pacific Salmon Treaty was very low resulting in limited allocations for commercial and sport fishermen. No directed commercial or liberalized sport fisheries were implemented in the transboundary Taku and Stikine Rivers and the Southeast sport fishery was restricted all season.

What are the economic impacts of low Chinook runs?

In the Yukon River, commercial fishing for Chinook salmon, which is an important source of income, was closed. While the Chinook salmon fishery on the Yukon River generated an average annual harvest value of $1.3 million over the preceding ten years, the fishery was closed resulting in no revenue. The summer chum salmon directed commercial fishery was initiated with gear restricted to dip nets, beach seines, and fish wheels requiring live release of all Chinook salmon caught. The lower Yukon River summer chum salmon fishery transitioned to gillnet gear once the majority of the Chinook salmon run had passed upstream. Dip net and beach seine gear accounted for approximately half of the well above average total summer chum salmon commercial harvest of 485,587 fish and a well above average commercial value of $1.8 million. However, this gear is less efficient than gillnet gear resulting in significant foregone commercial harvest of summer chum salmon.

On the Kuskokwim River, implementation of the commercial salmon fishery was significantly delayed until July 16 to aid in conservation of Chinook salmon. On average, 83% of chum salmon and 97% of sockeye salmon have passed through the commercial fishing district by this date. This resulted in significant foregone commercial salmon harvest opportunity and below average harvests of chum and sockeye salmon. However, price paid was above average resulting in an above average total commercial ex-vessel value of $1.2 million in the Kuskokwim River salmon fishery.

In Cook Inlet, conservative Chinook salmon management in the east side set gillnet fishery resulted in a below average (36%) harvest of sockeye salmon. The sport fishery harvest of 1,577 late-run Chinook salmon was 72 percent below the recent five-year average. A study commissioned in 2007 by ADF&G showed that sport angler expenditures for sport fishing in Cook Inlet totaled $732 million. Although no economic study was done in 2013 to compare to 2007, it is clear that the sport fishing industry was affected by the low run of Chinook salmon in 2013. Because of the expected poor Northern Cook Inlet area Chinook salmon runs, preseason restrictions were instituted in both the sport and commercial fisheries. These restrictions had significant economic impact on commercial fishers, processors, guides, lodges and other businesses that depend on these fisheries.

In Southeast Alaska, low runs to the Taku and Stikine Rivers resulted in no directed commercial, sport or subsistence fisheries for those Chinook stocks. Region-wide, the sport fishery was conducted with low bag limits for all users and scaled down season limits for non-residents. The commercial troll summer Chinook fishery was only open for six days in early July. These reduced opportunities had significant economic and social impacts on user groups and fishing dependent communities.

What is causing low runs of Chinook salmon in Alaska?

Numerous physical and biological factors can influence production and survival of Chinook salmon in the freshwater and marine phases of their lifecycle. Additional research is needed to gain a better understanding of the primary factors that are affecting Chinook productivity and abundance. Fluctuations in the survival of Chinook salmon smolt can significantly alter run strengths at local, regional, and statewide scales. Environmental conditions such as precipitation, air and ocean temperatures and water currents, to name a few, are believed to affect juvenile salmon survival.

What is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game doing in response to low Chinook returns?

In July of 2012, ADF&G implemented a detailed planning approach to increase our stock assessment capabilities for Chinook salmon. A series of meetings took place among scientists representing ADF&G, federal agencies, and academia in the fall of 2012 to determine what gaps exist in our knowledge of Chinook salmon life history and stock assessment. These meetings resulted in the development of a draft gap analysis that recommended a suite of twelve indicator Chinook salmon stocks spread throughout Alaska. ADF&G hosted a symposium in October of 2012 to provide information on recent downturns in Chinook salmon abundance and addressed key knowledge gaps important for understanding Chinook salmon stocks in Alaska. A team of nine ADF&G biologists and scientists worked together with federal agencies and academic partners to develop the "Chinook Salmon Stock Assessment and Research Plan, 2013" (ADF&G Special Publication No. 13-01). The plan describes the general life history of Chinook salmon in Alaska; documents stock-specific declines in productivity, abundance, and harvest; and describes gaps in knowledge that limit management options when responding to downturns in productivity.

In addition to existing Chinook salmon stock assessment projects, the State of Alaska has provided $7.5M in funds this year as part of potentially a $30.0M investment in Chinook salmon research over the next five years. Projects have been identified that maximize coverage of Chinook distribution in the state, the efficient use of funds, and the potential for viable results. Work will primarily focus on twelve indicator stocks spread across Alaska with studies designed to: (1) estimate escapement and age, sex, and length composition of escapement, (2) estimate harvest along with age, sex, and length composition of harvest, (3) estimate production in adult equivalents by brood year, (4) estimate smolt production by brood year, (5) estimate marine survival by brood year, (6) provide adequate traditional knowledge concerning patterns and trends of use for each indicator stock, and (7) improve forecast models to produce maximum sustained yield, and management.

Consistent with the state's constitutional and statutory mandate to manage renewable resources to provide sustained yield, ADF&G is working closely with the Alaska Board of Fisheries (Board) to ensure that Chinook salmon are conserved while providing for opportunities on the more abundant species of salmon where possible. In addition, during the fall of 2012 and spring of 2013, ADF&G is engaged in efforts in collaboration with constituents and the board of fisheries to evaluate management strategies that conserve Chinook while allowing selective harvest of more abundant species.

What are the State of Alaska and Federal Governments doing to help affected Alaskans?

In addition to the new Chinook salmon research funds, Governor Parnell requested fishery federal disaster determinations from the Secretary of Commerce for Chinook fisheries on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers (July 14, 2012), Cook Inlet, the Kenai River, and streams of Upper Cook Inlet (August 16, 2012) . In September of 2012, the Secretary of Commerce, after reviewing information from the State of Alaska, determined that a commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster exists for three regions of the Alaska Chinook salmon fishery. As a result, Congress had the authority to appropriate funds for fishery disaster relief under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act. The areas affected may also qualify for other forms of federal assistance. In November of 2012, the U.S. Small Business Administration recently made an Economic Injury Disaster Loan declaration, qualifying businesses in the affected region without credit available elsewhere for federal loans at a 4 percent interest rate. Governor Parnell's administration is actively working with the Alaska Congressional Delegation toward a Congressional appropriation for relief.