State investing in sound, scientific fishery research

An important part of our mission at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) is to manage salmon runs consistent with the sustained yield principle in order to provide opportunity for current and future generations, and ensure continued value to Alaskans and our economy. Escapement-based salmon management is fundamental to fulfilling that mission.

 

Recent king salmon runs on the Kenai River have been below average and projections for 2013 paint a similar picture. This world-class resource is critically important, and we take to heart the fact that conservative management due to periods of low abundance and productivity creates both social and economic hardships for our fellow Alaskans.

ADF&G remains steadfast in our commitment to manage Kenai River king salmon using the best science available. We have invested heavily in conducting research that is scientifically sound and defensible, advancing our ability to successfully manage these stocks.

We know the split beam sonar previously used to assess Kenai River king salmon had difficulty differentiating king salmon from the much more abundant sockeye salmon. Since 2007, we have been employing a new multibeam sonar technology known as DIDSON, and working to develop techniques to more accurately assess king salmon abundance using size information taken from high-resolution images of fish. This work allowed the project to transition completely from less accurate split-beam to DIDSON technology in 2011.

DIDSON is high resolution imaging technology, much like an ultrasound which creates an image of the fish and offers the ability to directly estimate the size of the fish. This technology is far superior at distinguishing king salmon from the more abundant sockeye salmon based on size, and greatly improves accuracy in the passage or escapement estimates.

In 2013, we will further improve our assessment of king salmon escapement in the Kenai River by operating a second sonar site upstream from the original sonar location. The up-river site will improve our ability to accurately estimate king salmon passage by eliminating a number of limitations that are currently associated with the lower sonar site.

Using the much improved data provided by DIDSON technology, ADF&G staff conducted a complete review of historical data for both the early and late Kenai River king salmon runs, which allowed us to set new escapement goals based on the best, most recent scientific information. Their work was peer-reviewed and a paper describing their approach and the statistical tools they used was recently published in the esteemed Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

Simply put, ADF&G has invested significant resources in securing the best tools and scientific data available to establish accurate escapement goals and measure king salmon escapement on the Kenai River. However, investing in new technology and updating escapement goals are not the only actions the State is taking.

A massive multi-year research initiative is underway to help determine why Alaska’s king salmon stocks have declined across the state. King salmon are so important to Alaskans’ way of life that we must vigorously pursue information on the causes of low abundance. We are working to improve our stock assessment programs across Alaska so our managers can provide better opportunities to harvest king salmon sustainably, even during times of low productivity.

Governor Sean Parnell has made this a top priority of his administration. His original budget request contained $10 million to add to funds already in the ADF&G budget for the first component of the comprehensive Chinook Research Plan. The State budget included these crucial funds, and was signed into law last month.

This major fisheries initiative is the direct result of a symposium last fall that brought together more than 400 scientists, fishermen and women, members of the public, and government representatives.

The research plan includes work on adult and juvenile king salmon, harvest assessments, as well as work on genetics, biometrics, and collecting local and traditional knowledge. Projects will be conducted statewide, and the research plan will be updated as more data and analyses become available.

The bottom line is this: Our fish and our people are linked and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will continue to invest in ways to improve our knowledge, and ensure that we manage Alaska’s fish resources for the benefit of current and future generations of Alaskans.

Cora Campbell is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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