Fishermen hoping to get a jump on the Anchor River’s erratic silver salmon runs will have to do so through old-fashioned word of mouth rather than the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s weir counting system for the foreseeable future.
With no more funding secured to keep the weir — a device used to count how many fish pass through a portion of the river — in place to count silver salmon, Fish and Game officials removed it on Aug. 3 stopping short the data it provides fishermen around the state through the department’s online fish count website.
The weir was previously used in two phases — first to count the spring and summer run of king salmon with the help of DIDSON sonar technology, and then to count the fall coho salmon run. However, Carol Kerkvliet, Fish and Game assistant area management biologist, said there was no funding source to keep counting silvers this year and there are currently no plans to refund that operation.
Kerkvliet said it costs about $25,000 to run the weir for silvers from early August to mid-September each year. Prior to 2010 that money was provided by Fish and Game through its sportfish division funding, but in 2010 and 2011 a large portion of that money came from a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kerkvliet said. King salmon counts will continue through Fish and Game funding, she said.
“So, it was a great thing, this cooperative agreement,” she said. “We were able to get two more years of counts and the operation was almost through the end of September. Without that additional funding, we just simply didn’t have the funds to operate it for silvers this year.”
Sterling resident Bob Whittenberg said he has been fishing the Anchor River since the mid 1980s. He said the fishery has been poor the last few years, but in the 1990s he could watch as the silvers flooded the river in waves.
“It was great fishing and it was fun because you’d fish with a fly rod and be catching 8-, 12-, 15-pound fish on a fly rod — it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “But I have just seen it go downhill. It is what it is.”
Whittenberg said most anglers looked at the weir count before making the drive to see if it was worth the trouble.
“If you see there’s only been 50 silvers through there, you are not going to run down there and get too excited about it,” he said. “But if you see there’s been 500, then you know they are coming in pretty good numbers.”
Local fishing instructor and Sterling resident Dave Atcheson agreed.
“Without that it is kind of hit or miss,” he said. “You’ve just got to go and a lot of people go on the incoming tide and try to be there when some fresh fish come in.”
On Fish and Game’s fish count search site, Anchor River Coho is listed ninth in the top 10 searches.
Even though the river receives a good deal of fishing pressure, Kerkvliet said she hasn’t heard many concerns from fishermen. She said it is important for Fish and Game to know how many fish head into the river, however, managers have to prioritize that need with funding levels and other higher priority issues.
“For other rivers, you don’t know specifically how many fish are coming up or the escapement for every river in the state — there’s no funds for that really,” she said.
Silver runs on the Anchor can swing drastically and are “predictable in their unpredictability,” she said. In fact, Kerkvliet said 78 percent of the escapement could come up the river in just a few days.
In 1987 the weir was operated and escapement totaled just 2,600, she said. That jumped to 20,000 a few years later. In 2004, 5,728 silvers came through the river — 3,666 in one day. The next year that jumped to 18,977 with several similar one-day spikes in fish, she said.
For that reason there is no escapement goal and the daily bag limit is two fish. Coho counts don’t usually drive in-season management decisions either, Kerkvliet said, because the silvers travel up the river en masse leaving little time for managers to respond.
“When the water level is low they’ll typically either hang out in the lower river or right off in the saltwater and then when water conditions become more favorable for them, they will just push in like bullets,” she said. “So it’s really hard to manage for that migratory behavior.”
However, the removal of the weir doesn’t mean there isn’t any coho data being collected on the river — Fish and Game still tracks it through their statewide harvest survey, she said.
“The additional years of weir counts have helped us to see what the corresponding harvest levels are, and we’ve had this wide range in counts from year to year and so all of that has benefited us to evaluate how the stock is doing and for future years,” Kerkvliet said.
Kerkvliet said there could be future consequences from Fish and Game managers not knowing the river’s coho numbers, but a balance must be made.
“It is always nice to have those numbers but ... we have a number of priorities and a finite pocket of money and you have to set your priorities,” she said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.