Editor’s note: This story is part of the Clarion’s continuing look at issues affecting Cook Inlet salmon fisheries.
Researchers spoke about gaps in knowledge about the Pacific salmon life cycle in the ocean, and using hatcheries to observe trends in chinook salmon populations during the final day of a symposium in Anchorage.
The first session of the day included several scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose research focused on the size, distribution and food sources of pacific salmon.
Phil Mundy, researcher for NOAA and director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Auke Bay Laboratories, said using the Pacific Decadal Oscillation as an explanation of the king salmon decline was too broad.
“I’m not a fan of the PDO, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. I think it served its purpose. I think it pointed out the importance of the marine variables in determining the survival of salmon in the ocean, but it’s a very blunt instrument,” he said.
He called salmon “low cost biological autonomous underwater vehicles” that collect data throughout their lives.
“We just need to learn how to download the data when they return to spawn,” Mundy said.
He highlighted several types of data that should be researched in the marine environment including their diets, the location of the food the salmon eat and where juvenile salmon congregate along the coasts.
“I think in the case of most of our big rivers like the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, we have very little idea where the fish are when they’re in the near-shore marine environment,” he said.
Mundy suggested teaming up with other scientists who come to the North Pacific to conduct climate studies and other types of research, in order to make research on kings more affordable.
“I think salmon being a marine species, from my point of view it might seem odd to some people that we don’t spend more of our research budget studying salmon in the marine environment,” Mundy said. “People from all over the world come to our waters every year to study the climate ... I think we need to heighten the awareness of people who go out on research vessels. We need to watch for these ships of opportunities, platforms of opportunities and try to get them to drag a net through the water once in a while.”
Another NOAA researcher, Ed Farley, addressed a lack of funding in his presentation as well.
As he presented the results of a study on juvenile chinook distribution in the Bering Sea, data from 2008 was missing, he said, because the group didn’t have the money. That funding has since been restored.
Farley said his research suggested that sockeye salmon migrated differently in the cold weather than they did in the warm weather years.
“What we think is going on is — it’s cold, they’re not growing as fast — so they’re not getting offshore as fast, so we’re not able to get them with our gear, Farley said.
He said further research is needed to connect the impact of changes in climate with the growth rate of salmon to address a gap in marine knowledge.
Marine research presented during the early session lacked consistent data on Cook Inlet chinook.
Kate Myers, a retired University of Washington professor, spoke about the information needed to understand open-ocean ecology influencing immature chinook during her presentation.
Myers said the little bit of data she had seen showed that Cook Inlet appeared to be the most widespread stocks of the stocks she had seen sampled.
During a question and answer session after the marine-life presentation Paul Shadura, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, asked why there wasn’t much data on Cook Inlet fish or other stocks in the Gulf of Alaska.
“They don’t really show up that well,” Myers said. “We think, we hypothesize because their distribution is so broad. What we don’t really know is whether, within that broader distribution, the individual stocks have their own specific migration pathways.”
Myers said it was possible that particular stocks of salmon from Alaska migrated into parts of the Bering Sea or into the Aleutian Island chain.
“All we have is a smattering of data so it’s important, knowing those stock specific distributions — and salmon do have stock specific distributions on the high seas — knowing those gives us an idea about what to look at for causes of decline in ocean survival,” Myers said. “If you don’t even know for sure whether your stock is in the Bering Sea or the Gulf of Alaska, it’s really hard to predict what’s important, to say what the important variables or parameters are, or what type of data to collect to correct those issues.”
Cook Inlet researchers could use samples from the Gulf of Alaska bycatch, Myers said, to determine what fish are eating in the wintertime and give them a better idea of chinook distribution.
Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, said there were several areas of research mentioned during the two-day convention that caught his attention.
“They said on pink salmon years there was a decline in size and the theory was the chinooks were having too much competition,” Kramer said. “It adds fuel to the fire that we are maybe putting too much competition for food in (the ocean). Maybe carrying capacity needs to be better defined.”
Kramer said the more targeted information on Cook Inlet stock was needed. During a question and answer session on the first day, he asked panelists about the early run of chinook salmon on the Kenai River and how the decline could eventually lead to a stock of concern status for the run.
Kramer said he would continue to push for research into the issue.
“We’ve had a rapidly developing sport fishery that’s been going on now for about 35 years and maybe we’re seeing the effects of fishing a little bit too much on these stocks,” Kramer said. “We need to redesign how we think about how we conduct or sport fisheries for conservation purposes for future run strengths.”
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he thought the research into the marine environment was going to be key in understand king salmon returns.
“I think it’s interesting to note the better forecast ability in the Bering Sea and returns in the Yukon,” he said, referring to a study mentioned in the early morning session. “I think it’s one of those areas where — not just chinook salmon but sockeye and coho — if there’s a better understanding of the physical parameters in the gulf that could help give us better information in terms of forecast … and the timing of the return, I think that would be very useful information to have.”
Bob Clark, chief fisheries scientist for the sport fish division of Fish and Game, said he was encouraged by the amount of information presented at the symposium.
“We noticed that patterns and trends in abundance are not the same around the state for chinook salmon until recently and we’ve observed downtrends all around the state,” he said. “Social and economic effects have been drastic, however we’re not sure what’s causing the downturn and in many cases we do not have the basic information needed to understand the causes.”
A positive, he said, was that there were new and existing tools of stock assessment that could be used to better understand the problem.
“One exciting development I saw today was that early marine and first year winter survival is critical to chinook salmon productivity and abundance,” Clark said. “I think it’s critical that we do more work in this area.”
Clark said he thought it had become apparent the department needed to gather more knowledge about the fishery from fishermen as well.
“We need a traditional understanding of the past to put in context what we’re seeing today.”
Clark said the department would take all of the information gathered during the symposium and use it to complete an analysis of gaps in the department’s knowledge about chinook fisheries.
The comment period on that analysis will run until Nov. 9.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.