by Laine Welch
More than 100 researchers and three dozen projects are underway to find clues as to why Alaska’s Chinook salmon production has declined since 2007.
The ambitious effort marks the start of a state-backed, five-year, $30 million Chinook Salmon Research Initiative that includes 12 major river systems from Southeast Alaska to the Yukon. And while it will be years before the project yields definitive data, the scientists have pinned down some early findings.
“It’s not the fresh water production of the juvenile Chinook that is the reason this decline is occurring, it’s being driven by poor marine survival,” said Ed Jones, the lead for the Initiative and Sport Fish Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We don’t know why, but once these juvenile Chinook salmon are entering the ocean, they are not surviving at the rates they once did.”
At each river system, the Chinook team is estimating how many young fish are going to the ocean, refining estimates of how many older fish are returning to spawn, and tracking the marine catches.
“That’s an effort to estimate the harvests of these 12 indicator stocks in detail,” he explained. “So we’re going to implement tagging programs on the juveniles, and as they go out to the ocean, they’ll be marked with an adipose fin clip. We also will include a tiny coded wire tag in their heads and those will be sent to the Juneau lab where we can tell when and where those fish were released. With those three components, we can do full stock reconstruction.” Jones said his primary focus is on the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers, because of the importance of Chinook salmon to subsistence users.
“A major part of this initiative is to make sure we can help those folks fish when there’s fish around and pull the reins back when they are not around,” Jones said. “But we need to gather the information that allows us to do that accurately each and every year. We are trying to learn from the users and gather information on historical harvests, what the people know and what they’ve learned for centuries. We’ll feed that information into our stock assessment program.”
Chinook salmon spend up to five years in the ocean, and production goes through up and down cycles. A few years ago, west coast and British Columbia stocks were said to be doomed, but they have rebounded and are at record numbers in some cases. Jones believes that’s what will also occur in Alaska.
“The take-home message is that productivity cycles; unfortunately, in Alaska right now, we are at the low end of that cycle,” he said. “We are experiencing a tough time right now, but it will turn around, so don’t lose hope.”
The first installment of disaster relief money will soon be on its way to Alaska fishermen hurt by low Chinook salmon returns to the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Cook Inlet regions. Disasters were declared by Governor Parnell for those three regions in 2012, opening the door for relief payments from the feds.
NOAA Fisheries announced last week that $7.8 million will be distributed in direct payments to fishermen for their losses. The payments break out at $3.2 million for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region and $4.6 million for the Cook Inlet Region. The checks will be administered by the Pacific States Marine Fishery Commission, and according to Senator Begich’s office, should be in the mail in September or October.
Last week, a coalition of Alaskans and some of the state’s largest fishing groups joined with the Congressional delegation to urge Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene with Canada as five large scale mines prepare to go on line in watersheds that feed into Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon rivers.
The five mines are part of a larger mineral development push by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who has pledged to create eight new mines and expand nine more by next year.
Alaskans are citing the Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, which states that trans-boundary waters “shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other side.”
“Using that treaty might get the Canadians’ attention,” said Brian Lynch, director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association. “At least it would start the conversation.”
The state of Alaska has made no statements on either the Aug. 4 Mount Polley mining disaster or the threats the new BC mines pose to Southeast waters.
Comments are closed