Low King Salmon Abundance – an Anomaly or the New Reality?

At the recent king salmon symposium, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) detailed declining abundance of king returns across Alaska and highlighted the need for basic information to better understand the underlying reasons for this statewide concern. The Governor subsequently announced a five year, $30 million commitment by the state to fund additional king salmon research.

2012 king fisheries across the state were officially disastrous. Federal disaster declarations were issued for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Cook Inlet. In Cook Inlet alone, economic losses were more than $30 million. Closures cost the king salmon sport fishery an estimated $17 million. King protection measures resulted in a reallocation of $16 million in ex-vessel value of the commercial sockeye harvest from the east side set net (ESSN) fishery to the drift fleet fishery.

In anticipation of another poor king return in 2013, the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) has formed a task force to recommend changes to the late-run Kenai River king salmon management plan needed to manage these unprecedented low king returns.

It is against this backdrop that we outlined in prior posts how commercial interests and advocates for the ESSN fishery think that 2012 was an anomaly and that a return to “normal” fishing is on tap for 2013. KRSA believes that such assertions are wishful thinking. We are confronted by a NEW REALITY and it looks like this.

All Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) populations of king salmon are at low levels that have not been seen since the 1960’s. In 2011, based on poor returns since the mid-2000s, four king salmon stocks in the Northern District of UCI were declared Stocks of Concern by the BOF, which then took regulatory action to close sport and commercial harvests on these stocks. Anticipation of low king returns in 2012 led to pre-season restrictions of all fisheries in Cook Inlet that harvest king salmon. Fisheries were then closed in-season as runs failed to materialize at levels needed to assure both harvest and minimum spawning escapements.

UCI king salmon management plans and fishing regulations were designed in the 1980s and 1990s around population levels that were 2-3 times larger than what we observed in 2012. The current plan was not designed to operate effectively at the low levels of abundance of Kenai River late-run king salmon that we have seen for the past four years. “Normal” conduct, that is fishing the ESSN fishery in accordance with the abundance of sockeye salmon as prescribed in the Late-run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan, can easily take the entire harvestable surplus of late-run king salmon and leave few if any fish available for the sport and guided sport fishery. Without significant restrictions, the ESSN harvest could prevent achievement of the escapement objective at these low levels of abundance even without a sport fishery. This outcome is clearly unacceptable. ADFG was forced to step outside the existing plans in 2012 to enact restrictions and closures for all major harvesters of king salmon in order to meet established escapement goals.

The science on king salmon biology tells us that low abundance of king salmon is the new reality for at least the immediate future. It is rash to expect that ADFG will approach its salmon management for the 2013 fishery season with any less concern for kings than it did in 2012. However, we are hearing lots of support for what folks (not KRSA) are calling “fishing based on abundance” at meetings and in the media. This is pretty much code from commercial sockeye fishing interests and advocates for ignoring the realities of low king salmon abundance and gutting any and all conservation / allocation measures in the UCI salmon management plans.

This “solution” calls for removing windows in the sockeye management plans, keeping regular commercial fishing periods regardless of king returns and fishing the ESSN fishery hard when sockeye are on the beach (through the use of emergency openers). Then, if too many king salmon are taken by the ESSN fishery and the escapement objective (or whatever index) is in the red, these folks think that ADFG should just take up the slack by implementing further in-river restrictions, be it going to drift boats only river wide, increasing the size of the in-river sanctuaries, and /or restricting what’s left of the sport fishery to catch and release only. Such actions in their view would allow the ESSN to return to “normal” regardless of king salmon abundance. This naive “solution” is not a viable resolution to the issue of low king returns. It fails to protect king escapements, share the burden of king conservation equitably, or protect the economic viability of both the commercial and sport fisheries.

Clearly, “fishing based on abundance” in years of low king returns needs to consider the abundance of king salmon, not sockeye salmon alone. The first step in developing a sustainable fishing strategy will be to use the science to determine what level of harvest is appropriate given the low numbers of fish. Then we must decide what proportion of this acceptable level of harvest should go to a limited sport fishery consistent with management plan direction that king stocks are to be managed primarily for sport and guided sport. What is left should be available to the commercial fishery.

The 2012 fishery demonstrate that the UCI drift gillnet fleet is fully capable of being the primary harvester of sockeye salmon during times of low king salmon abundance. Using the drift fleet as the primary tool for harvest of sockeye salmon, the 2012 commercial fishery generated its third highest ex-vessel value in the past ten years, was able to produce a “normal” harvest of sockeye based on the size of this year’s return, and provided sockeye escapement into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers within optimal escapement goals.

The new reality is that during these times of low king salmon abundance, the drift fleet will remain as the primary harvester of late-run sockeye salmon for the UCI commercial fisheries. More importantly, the abundance of late-run king salmon will be the primary constraint on both the ESSN and in-river sport fisheries.