Editor’s note: This story is part of the Clarion’s continuing look at issues affecting Cook Inlet salmon fisheries.
During the first session of a two-day chinook salmon symposium, researchers focused on the magnitude of the state’s king salmon issues.
After each presentation, panelists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Alaska were given time to ask questions.
While several of the presentations during the first session focused on stocks all over the state, touching briefly, if at all, on the Cook Inlet, Tom Vania, regional management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, talked extensively about the inlet.
Vania began his presentation by saying there wasn’t enough time to present all of the management challenges in Southcentral Alaska.
“Unfortunately, 10 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to adequately describe all of the meetings, the thought process, the data, the anguish and the second-guessing managers do amongst themselves throughout the season,” Vania said.
He focused on the Cook Inlet and broke his presentation into two parts covering inseason management challenges and brief explanations of the management actions taken during the season.
Trends in escapement, Vania said, play a primary role in fisheries management.
“It has an effect on the timing and severity of management actions that we take,” he said. “In the early 2000s, a period of high productivity was going on. Liberalizations occurred earlier and quicker in-season because the risk of being wrong was relatively low.”
In recent years, poor escapements on several rivers have affected biologists similarly, he said.
“The consequences of not achieving an escapement goal for the whole year becomes significant to the sustainability and management is going to consider additional restrictions beyond what we may have taken in a previous year. They’ll be quicker to put those in place.”
Other factors Vania said played a role in management were how quickly biologists could receive information about a run in-season, the timing of king salmon runs and the high fishing effort in the Cook Inlet due to easy access to rivers.
The audience question and answer session was dominated mainly by subsistence fishermen along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers who said their ability to eat was being threatened by chronic low returns of chinook salmon.
The first question submitted by an audience member asked whether chinook salmon runs were controlled more by management or environmental factors.
Panelists addressed questions of gaps in Fish and Game’s knowledge about freshwater habitat and its effect on king abundance.
At first, no one volunteered to answer the question, however Jim Fall, a researcher with Fish and Game, said the fact that no one could answer the question readily implied that the department needed to address that gap in knowledge.
Vania said tackling freshwater survival between the various stages of the chinook salmon lifecycle would be hard to tackle statewide.
“The freshwater environment varies from system to system and each stream is going to be different,” Vania said. “I see that as kind of a data gap that we can get more information on.”
They also addressed whether there were signs that the chinook fishery would improve in the next couple of years.
“Have we seen similar declines in abundance … that’s the question we can’t answer,” said Tom Linderman, research biologist for Fish and Game whose presentation focused on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. “It would be a very difficult question to answer as well. It has taken decades to try and build up some of the information to have just to explain the short term data sets. So, it’s just not possible to answer that question without longer term data sets and detailed data to be able to address the historical trends that have been seen.”
Paul A. Shadura said he was happy to hear researchers talk about using local and traditional knowledge in their assessment of chinook runs.
The idea, which Shadura called cooperative management, was addressed several times during the discussion of subsistence fishing as several audience members accused Fish and Game biologists of ignoring traditional knowledge about fisheries.
“We’ve asked for that in the Cook Inlet for a long time,” Shadura said. “We always seem to be the last ones to find out anything. This co-management idea is very good. If the fishermen knew that this was coming and these strong steps were going to be taken, maybe a lot businessmen wouldn’t have put that much money into our operations, maybe we wouldn’t have hired as many crew. Maybe we wouldn’t be in the financial straits a lot of us are in.”
Shadura said Cook Inlet fishermen could be a valuable resource for the department.
“We’re there. We’re fishing there. Our houses are there. We’re fishing there all the time in the summer,” Shadura said. “So if the idea was to fish on abundant stocks, we could have helped them with that. We understand when fish are available and we could have helped them with the management that was conducted in the summer. I think we could have reduced a lot of damage to the community.”
The second session of the day focused on various tools the department could use to measure abundance.
Researchers then spent more than an hour taking questions from audience members toward the end of the day.
Several panelists answered the question of what they were hoping to see come out of a comprehensive research plan for chinook salmon and what kind of data should be included.
David Bernard, a retired Fish and Game biologist, said he wanted to make sure that the data available was accurate and corrected for potential bias so that future researchers wouldn’t have to worry about inaccuracy in their research.
Daniel Schindler, a researcher from the University of Washington, said he thought it was important to address the issue of the carrying capacity of the ocean and whether an abundance of hatchery fish was reducing the food supply for wild salmon.
Randall Peterman, former professor at Simon Fraser University, said he thought a differentiation should be made in research between fresh water survival and marine survival rates.
During the second day of the symposium, researchers will discuss chinook salmon in their marine environment and the role of hatchery research.
Symposium organizers said they welcomed questions from audience members and those listening online.
The symposium can be watched at www.adfg.alaska.gov or heard by phone at 1-888-655-9647
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.