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ADF&G chinook salmon research to be discussed at Anchorage symposium

Posted: October 20, 2012 - 7:19pm  |  Updated: November 27, 2012 - 8:40pm

Early next week researchers from around the country will gather in Anchorage to address the state’s king salmon puzzle. One of the missing pieces they will attempt to nail down is a lack of consistent data between the state’s king-bearing rivers.

Scientists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released a draft version of a document outlining key gaps in the department’s knowledge about king salmon in both freshwater and marine environments statewide.

During the symposium that kicks off Monday, scientists will examine types of research included in the draft analysis and the department will present a final version of the document by the end of the year.

The document identified 12 king salmon-bearing rivers across the state that would serve as “indicator stocks” in what Bob Clark, chief fisheries scientist for the sport fish division of Fish and Game, hopes will result in a centralized database of the state’s king salmon research.

The Kenai River was included in the group and researchers identified several areas of research that could be used to supplement statewide data on king salmon runs.

The four projects include moving the DIDSON sonar site, estimating the abundance of smolt — or juvenile salmon — estimating marine harvest and compiling local knowledge of king trends.

The new research could cost the department more than $400,000 annually to implement, Clark said.

However, the department included the total cost and potential for successful implementation of new projects into account when it considered each of the rivers, he said.

Some projects identified, such as the movement of the sonar site on the Kenai River; or a weir on the Karluk river, have already been launched.

“Some of that (cost) factors into what’s already being measured,” Clark said. “So you’re saving some money because there’s already projects in place.”

The sonar site project on the Kenai river began with capital funding, but needs more funding to pay personnel to estimate run-strength at the new site according to the gap analysis.

The comment period for the draft analysis ends Nov.. 9 and the research plan is due in early December, Clark said, hopefully in time to be included in the governor’s request for funds during the upcoming legislative session.

The research team tasked with developing the gap analysis chose the Unuk, Stikine, Taku, Chilkat, Copper, Susitna, Karluk, Chignik, Nushagak, Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in addition to the Kenai.

Clark said the team included rivers were disaster declarations had been made following the 2012 fishing season, it also added rivers where very little was known about king abundance and runs.

“There were about 20-25 stocks that were considered, so ... it was just a process of winnowing out places that looked alike,” he said. “Some of it was, ‘Is it conceivable that we can pull off research in this area?’”

Several indicator rivers, such as the Unuk which has the fourth largest run in Southeast Alaska, have king salmon runs that are considered healthy. Others, like the Yukon and tributaries of the Susitna River have stocks that have been classified as stocks of “yield concern” due to low returns, according to the analysis.

The Kenai River met its escapement goals 90 percent of the time between 2006-2010 but has seen uncertain performance since 2009 when changes were made in the assessment of the run strength according to the analysis.

Analysis for each river suggested types of research that could be carried out to improve king salmon knowledge, eventually the researchers hope to use the data to solve the puzzle of low king returns across the state.

“In the past we’ve seen downturns in certain areas in the state but we’ve never seen a concerted downturn across the state,” Clark said of chinook salmon runs. “If you look at the data, this is something unique and ... we need data from a variety of places to figure it out.”

Researchers suggested methods of measuring marine harvest of chinook and salmon bycatch trends which will be discussed during the salmon symposium.

One of the ways researchers suggested determining marine harvest and movement patterns of chinook was to use coded wire tags on juvenile salmon as they leave their rivers.

“That’s one thing that we really lack around the state, we’re trying to figure out what’s causing these downturns and just from adult data its very difficult to tell whether the drop in survival of animals is going on out in the marine environment, or it’s something that’s happening in the fresh water,” Clark said.

In the Cook Inlet, where extensive genetic testing has been done in rivers and allows local biologists to align genetic samples from marine catches with specific local rivers, coded wire tags would serve a different purpose than they do in watersheds were there isn’t good genetic differentiation.

Clark said coding juvenile salmon as they left rivers in the Cook Inlet would give local researchers a chance to track their kings in the marine environment as other fisheries harvested local fish and reported the tag locations.

In other watersheds, the coded wire tags can be used in place of genetic sampling to determine where salmon originated, Clark said.

While the coded wire tags may work in some rivers, Clark said it wouldn’t be the best solution in others and part of the reason of the symposium was to learn about different technologies for tracking chinook.

Part of the research team’s analysis also includes anecdotal data and trends from people who live around each of the rivers.

“Our data on run abundance of chinook salmon really only goes back to the early 1970’s at best. For the Kenai, it’s really only back to the mid-1980’s,” Clark said. “What we’re trying to understand is, ‘Were there downturns like this before?’

“In some places the data go back far enough, you can look. Some other areas they don’t and our best bet is to ask people who have been around a long time. That’s one of the big things I think I’m looking for is asking people to look for patterns and trends in sort of the verbal history of fisheries.”

The research team will take input on the draft analysis through Nov. 9, then a research plan will come out in early December, Clark said.

The 2012 Alaska Chinook Salmon Symposium will be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Egan Center in Anchorage. It can be heard by phone at 1-888-655-9647 or streamed live from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website.


Rashah McChesney can be reached at

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potomac 10/21/12 - 11:32 am
salmon research

money , budget should not be the issue here when so much of AK economy is driven from these great fish so I say , spend what ever it takes to turn over every stone, a combination of factors will surely develop, most we already know of but don't know the total impact, and hopefully some new info will come out of the study to help this fish from becoming just a memory

kenai123 11/14/12 - 01:11 am
The Great King Salmon Mystery

Is there anyone out there wondering why they couldn't catch any king salmon this year? Some are even calling it a king salmon crisis but few if any will attempt to answer the mysterious question as to where all of our king salmon are going. It's not a salmon crisis when your neighbor fails to catch kings, it's a crisis when you fail to catch them.
If you ask the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, they will claim that our freshwater rivers and streams are producing plenty of baby king salmon. The mystery appears to begin as these baby kings leave the relative safety of the freshwater and enter the extremely dangerous saltwater. Our ADF&G is currently telling us that SOMETHING in the saltwater is killing our king salmon. The mystery thickens as you try to follow a Cook Inlet baby king salmon's life habits as it attempts to survive the perils of the Pacific Ocean from Kodiak Island to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond. In order to discover where these kings are going you need to do a little research into what has changed out in the Pacific Ocean. One of the largest factors which is constantly changing is the amount of fish our Commercial Pollock Fisheries are harvesting and "by-catch killing" out on the Pacific Ocean.

From the 1950 - 1960 Commercial Pollock Fishing was non-existent because Pollock populations had been commercially wiped out prior to that but that changed as Pollock populations swelled by 1965. As soon as Commercial Pollock Fisheries spotted this they immediately greatly expanded their fishing efforts from 1965 to 1970 and caught about 2,000,000 metric tons of Pollock annually until they killed the fishery thus causing it's harvest to crash down to around 1,000,000 metric tons annually. Commercial harvest levels remained around 1,000,000 metric tons annually until around 1998 when our Pollock populations again blossomed thus causing our commercial Pollock fishermen to again take notice. Pollock catches then went to 1,400,000 metric tons annually until about 2008 when commercial fisheries again wiped these Pollock populations back down to the previous 1,000,000 metric tons annually again. After this decade of over fishing by 2008 Pollock production then began a general downward nose dive because of the all the commercial abuse. At the same time the whole sale price of Pollock then when through the roof as our Pacific Pollock production did not rebound and continues to crash to this day.

How doe's this all affect king salmon in the Cook Inlet area? Our Commercial Fisheries research has proved that there are approximately 4 king salmon killed and thrown over-board within each metric ton of Pollock harvest. At current Pollock
harvest levels this would result in a king salmon by-catch of about 4,000,000 adult king salmon annually. Our North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, NPFMC has set annual trawler by-catch kill caps on king salmon at
25,000 in the Gulf of Alaska and 60,000 in the Bering Sea. Our NPFMC has placed an annual 85,000 king by-catch cap on a possible 4,000,000 king trawler by-catch killing rate. We are forced to use our imagination as to where the other 3,915,000 possible dead adult kings are at. Some how our commercial fisheries harvest just never seems to go over that magic 85,000 king cap. which would shut them down.

While these commercial trawlers are busy killing these adult kings, they are also by-catching and tossing overboard
DEAD smaller bait fish which salmon feed on; thus also reducing the prey our salmon have access to. Tremendous schools of herring, cod, rockfish, sand fish, hooligan, candle fish, smelt, stickleback, wolf fish and squid have been permanently wiped out with this bait fish by-catch dumping. This environmental destruction then forces our salmon to forage longer to meet their daily and future calorie intake needs. Upon entering the ocean, young salmon require huge amounts of prey to allow them to build fat reserves sufficient to allow them to migrate back to their freshwater rivers and streams. During the years prior to returning to freshwater, salmon feed voraciously in order to grow and build strength for the coming journey back home. As trawlers kill and by-catch dump this salmon prey back into the ocean, they dramatically increase a salmons chances of never achieving sufficient fat reserves to make it back to their native freshwater rivers and streams. This by-catch killing and dumping of salmon prey then forces salmon to forage longer, thus exposing them to additional predator encounters with salmon hunting killer and beluga whales along with seals. The additional predator exposure and the fat reserve reduction then further reduces a salmons chances of ever returning to its freshwater home. What is happening here is these
commercial trawlers are hitting our salmon from all sides. By-catch kill & dump a salmon's food source actually works to kill salmon with a basic lack of fat reserves. If somehow a salmon is still able to stagger along anyway, the trawlers then force them to forage additional hours just to survive, thus causing them to encounter many more salmon hunting whales and seals. If by some chance they manage to survive all these indirect salmon killers, the trawlers then directly attack them with general salmon by-catch dumping. To make matters even worse, new emerging trawler technology is now allowing trawler operators to even view the dead contents of their
nets before the net reaches the surface of the water. These new in-net cameras are now allowing operators to
spot nets saturated with dead salmon, while the net is still fishing underwater. This same technology has provided these operators with the ability to dump an entire net filled with salmon "before it even reaches the surface". What would you do when confronted with a net full of dead salmon which you cannot sell? These salmon are being dump dead just like all other marine life unfortunate enough to become trapped in these ecological killing machines. These trawler nets are the same type of ecological threat as floreral carbons to our
ozone layer or carbon dioxide to global warming and they all operating out of sight. Ecologists used to watch trawler by-catch in an attempt to control the marine destruction but commercial fisheries technology has leaped out in front of them and is now allowing nets full of anything to be dumped dead before even reaching the surface to be recorded as by-catch. Just about everything our salmon are trying to do to survive out in the ocean is under attack or is being interfered with by this commercial trawler fleet. The grand result of decades of this triple trawler wipe-out effect, (fat reserves, predator's and by-catch) is that very few salmon are
surviving to even attempt the journey back to their native rivers or streams

So you may ask what the solution is to all this unbelievable fisheries information? If you ask the Alaska Department
of Fish & Game they will point to a snow storm of data and grafts, which will leave you even more confused about
our commercial fisheries by-catch problems. My conclusion is that many things may need to change within our
commercial fisheries but key within those changes is that statewide we must stop commercial fisheries from
profiting when they kill non-targeted marine life as by-catch. This means that commercial fisheries should be legally required to retain and process ALL BY-CATCH and then DONATE ALL OF IT to a charity. That means that if you "by-catch kill" a beluga whale calf; you are forced to retain, process and donate it. If you by-catch kill a king salmon: you must retain, process and donate it. By charity I mean some kind of Food Bank. This would prevent commercial fisheries from donating by-catch to their favorite "commercial fisheries
non-profit". This change alone, over time would eventually resolve most of Alaska's current by-catch problems.
With this change commercial fisheries would eventually be forced to at least begin thinking about avoiding non-targeted by-catch. The king salmon by-catch issue is 100% about money; if you can make by-catch non-profitable, commercial
fisheries will eventually find a way to prevent the financial drain. If we leave things the way they are we will be
permanently losing many marine specie and fisheries in the very near future. As long as commercial fisheries are allowed to profit from by-catch, the by-catch issue will never go away and therefore all our Alaskan natural resources
and fisheries will go on suffering FOREVER. The new reality in our fisheries future must be that commercial by-catch
is going to cost you BIG. It really does not matter if it is a large fine or the charity donation, the Alaskan [filtered word] needs hold commercial fisheries accountable for the marine destruction it is causing within our ocean. The wholesale slaughter of non-targeted species is no longer just acceptable losses. This mean that the Alaskan public
must rise up and compel the Alaska Board of Fish and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to
take action and make substantial changes in the way ALL by-catch is processed by ALL of our commercial fisheries.
This is a very reasonable goal for the Alaskan public to pursue in resolving this very unreasonable waste of our
common Alaskan natural resource heritage.

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