A sparsely attended meeting at the Kenai Public Library marked the beginning of five years of chinook salmon research on the Kenai River.
Three representatives from the subsistence division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game presented a loose plan for gathering local and traditional knowledge from central Kenai Peninsula residents who harvest Kenai River chinook salmon.
Their research fits into a statewide effort by Fish and Game to assess the downturn of chinook stocks through a series of projects on rivers that have “indicator stocks” of the fish.
Projects on the 12 rivers that contain the indicator stocks were recommended to address gaps in knowledge for biologists tasked with managing the chinook salmon fisheries.
The broader chinook salmon stock assessment and research plan was published by Fish and Game in January 2013 after a Chinook Salmon Symposium where fisheries experts were gathered to weigh in on gaps in the state’s knowledge on king salmon bearing rivers.
At that symposium, the importance of having local and traditional knowledge was emphasized in several presentations.
Other projects identified on the Kenai River were the three-year project to move the DIDSON sonar used to assess chinook salmon runs, a project to estimate smolt abundance and one to estimate the marine harvest of Cook Inlet chinook salmon.
Malla Kukkonen, who works for the subsistence division said the group would do 25 interviews with local residents in each type of fishery to determine when and how people fish for chinook, how they share the resources they harvest, how far they travel to harvest and the overall cultural, social and economic value related to the resource.
Researchers will also be looking for changes in chinook patterns, Povelite said.
The group will also compile biological data on run strength and harvest to supplement their final report.
Jim Fall, research director for Fish and Game’s division of subsistence, said the division was starting some of their research ahead of other divisions within Fish and Game, though the final scope of the project to gather traditional knowledge on the Kenai River has not yet been defined.
All told, the subsistence division will take $1.2 million of the total funding available for chinook research for the first two years of the statewide research.
The Kenai River presents some challenges for subsistence researchers who are more accustomed to working in rural communities.
“The Kenai is going to be a little more challenging in that there are so many users and such a complex history there,” he said. “Part of the challenge and why we have to have these community scoping meetings is to narrow down the focus and try to figure out who we need to talk too.”
The research group will not focus on subsistence users, Povelite said. They want to hear from users in all aspects of the chinook fishery.
“It’s a bit of an experiment for us doing this kind of work in a system like the Kenai again just because of the number of people who have an interest in it,” Fall said. “Obviously we’ll talk to the Kenaitze tribe ... but we certainly won’t stop there.”
The final product of the subsistence division’s research will be available for use by local biologists and on a statewide level, though Fall said it can sometimes be received with skepticism.
“I’m an anthropologist, so I’m more open to it. Maybe from the other side, we’re too open to simply going with local perspectives that are sometimes quite deep in terms of specific knowledge and historical knowledge, but might not be really wide or have the comparative perspective that the biologists might bring,” he said.
Some researchers have become more open to local and traditional knowledge, he said.
“We see it in Board of Game meetings. It’s pretty common at a Board of Game meeting for hunters and trappers to give testimony and be, sort of, interviewed by board members about what they’re seeing. It is put into perspective along with the more systematic biological perspective,” he said.
Fish and Game has worked to include local and traditional perspectives in other portions of the state including the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers — which support the largest subsistence fisheries in the state — where inseason working groups on both rivers meet to advise biologists.
“There is a mechanism set up to listen to people and those perspectives are not simply dismissed, they are factored in,” Fall said. “I think that information is considered and I think it is valued, but I also think it’s an evolving situation and not everybody is as open to it as others.”
Researchers from Fish and Game will back late in November or in early December to continue their community outreach.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.