Kenai River Late-run King Salmon Task Force Notes

The Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) assigned a task force to examine the issue of low returns of late-run Kenai River king salmon and its impact on salmon fisheries. With four meetings scheduled over the winter months, the task force will have recommendations available for the BOF statewide finfish meeting in March.

The first meeting of the task force was held on Friday, November 16, 2012 at Kenai Peninsula College. Kevin Delaney, a KRSA fishery management consultant, has a seat on the nine member task force, which is co-chaired by BOF members Tom Kluberton and Vince Webster. KRSA board members and staff were also present in the audience. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) had many staff members in attendance to support the process.

As the task force process will be the subject of future Blog entries, this first entry is a summary of notes KRSA participants put together prior to the start of the process in an effort to achieve the most efficient participation.

Task Force Mission The BOF directed that “the mission of this task force is to identify a set of recommended adjustments to the Kenai Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan (5AAC 21.359) that would result in the best mix of in-river (sport, guided sport, personal use) and Upper Subdistrict set gill net fishing opportunity while providing the best means of attaining the escapement goal for Kenai River late-run Chinook during times of low King Salmon abundance as experienced in the 2012 season.”

This statement was written fairly quickly and, as written, has plenty of room for interpretation. For example, it is clear that the BOF is seeking suggestions for implementation in 2013 but less clear that the 2013 suggestions will form a template for the longer term future. The mission statement refers to “times of low abundance.”  KRSA staff feels that low abundance should be defined as “too few late-run king salmon to support the current management approach without putting the escapement objective in serious jeopardy.”

New Realities A thorough discussion seeking to define the “new reality” is essential for task force success. If there is no agreement on this then it is difficult or impossible to proceed. The existing late-run king salmon management plan was developed and adopted into code in the late 1980s, during times of high abundance of king salmon. Conditions are much different now than when the current plan was originally adopted.

• At the October, 2012 ADFG king salmon symposium, fishery researchers noted that there has been a statewide decline of king salmon returns across the state of Alaska in recent years. During times of high abundance, more than two million kings return to the major river systems in Alaska, while during times of low abundance less than one million return, often at an earlier age and smaller in size. Restrictions and closures of king salmon fisheries are occurring across Alaska on all major river systems.

• Much larger numbers of late-run king salmon were available in the 1980s than now. The original escapement goal was adopted after estimating total return for three years during which the estimate of total abundance ranged from 45, 000 to 90,000 fish. The notion was that a healthy population of king salmon produced about three adults for every spawner so the BOF agreed that the goal would be a range of 15,000-30,000 fish. If the Didson sonar count in 2012 was close to accurate, we realized a total return of just over 22,000 fish or far less than half the 1980s reality.

• In the 1980s, older (six and seven year olds) and larger fish were much more common. Numbers of large, old fish have declined considerably in current runs, both on the Kenai and elsewhere statewide.

• In the  1980s, about 10-15 percent of the total return entered the river after July 31. In 2012 about 35 percent of the total return entered the river in August.

• In the late 1980s the sport fishery was growing rapidly with no end in sight. Effort had tripled in less than ten years. Sport fishing effort for king salmon, now about 70 percent of what it was in the late 1980s, is stable or decreasing.

• In the 1980s the personal use dip net fishery took place only when the upper end of the in-river goal for sockeye salmon was exceeded. Now the fishery has a season of July 10-31 and is closed only if the lower end of the goal is projected to be missed.

• In the 1980s there was a fear that the sport fishery would continue to grow to the point where the harvest in that fishery could jeopardize meeting the escapement objective and result in restrictions to the commercial fishery.

THIS IS THE NEW REALITY – Today, at the low levels of king salmon abundance that we are observing, normal conduct of just the commercial east side set net fishery could harvest the entire harvestable surplus and more, leaving the sport fishery closed for the season and preventing achievement of the escapement goal. Sockeye salmon are also a part of the changing equation, as run sizes, escapement goals and prices have varied since the 1980s.

Core Principles A process like this task force usually takes some time to develop a set of principles that will guide their work. Even if the process fails to take time to do this it is usually very helpful for the individuals who participate to take the time to develop a set of principles with the groups/interests that they represent. Some suggestions for this process could include but not be limited to:

1. The fish have to come first. The process needs to take the time to fully understand the science that will be presented. Let the science guide the process more than any other category of information.  ADFG will be describing what they recommend for an escapement objective for late-run kings and also explaining just how that objective will be monitored in-season. While it is expected that abundance will be assessed primarily with Didson sonar, other indices of abundance may also drive in-season management decisions. There is also the issue of the uncertainty in any fishery assessment system and there will be plenty of uncertainty in whatever ADFG puts in the water in the next few years. It is helpful if this uncertainty is embraced by those who seek to develop fishing strategies and not just ignored. A lot is going on around the subject of king salmon abundance in the North Pacific. This process should not operate in a vacuum of information and should stay connected to the bigger picture.

2. Sharing of the conservation burden. The sport/personal use/marine sport and the commercial east side set net fishery are inextricably linked in this effort to conserve late-run king salmon and preserve what fishing effort can be deployed sustainably. At these low levels of abundance the burden of conservation, harvest or “pain” must be shared equally/equitably. At these low levels of abundance of late-run king salmon the drift gillnet fleet must remain the primary tool used to harvest surplus Kenai and Kasilof bound sockeye salmon.

3. Embrace the Policy for Management of Sustainable Salmon Fisheries. This document which was developed in an exhaustive public effort and adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries should be referred to early and often. The definitions and processes described in the Policy will help structure the discussion and prevent many potential misinterpretations. Application of the “precautionary principle” defined in the policy is particularly pertinent in these times of uncertain king production and trends.

4. Balance needs of the fish and fisheries. Conservation and opportunity – this is the tough one. In terms of conservation, ADFG has the power and has shown its ability to close every fishery that harvests late-run king salmon in an effort to achieve the agreed upon escapement objective. Thus the task force process is not about protecting the resource from all threats of exploitation, just the opposite. The process is about opportunity, about exploring the tension that exists between doing what is right for the fish and at-the-same time searching for strategies that would allow some responsible level of fishing opportunity, supported by the best available science, to occur in each of the fisheries that harvest late-run kings. The focus will be mostly on preserving the fisheries, the economics, and the community values that the region derives from utilizing the king salmon resource. The temptation to “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face” comes to mind as a description of the most likely null alternative to conducting this process so long as king salmon abundance remains as low as we have observed in recent years.