Area M fishers offer to pay for chum salmon study

Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2004

ANCHORAGE -- Badgered by claims of overharvesting chum salmon destined for subsistence users, fishers at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula are offering to help pay to show it's not true.

The Aleutians East Borough is offering the state $50,000 per year for the next five years for stock identification studies along the migratory route of chum salmon.

Borough Mayor Stanley Mack, in a letter to Mitch Demientieff, chair of the Federal Subsistence Board, also said area fishers may contribute receipts from chum salmon they catch for additional research money -- worth another $100,000 to $200,000 annually.

Identifying where fish hatch, enter the ocean, migrate and return to spawn would help regulators make decisions on where and when to allow fishing.

The money would be donated under two conditions, Mack said. The studies would be performed by the state, which is responsible for salmon management and experienced in the matter. Also, any lawsuit by competing fishers aimed at curtailing the take of Aleutians East fishers would kill the deal.

''Our fishermen must continue to fish,'' Mack said. ''If there is a lawsuit, all of the AEB's energy and funding will go to the lawyers. This is a sorry situation to be in.''

Geron Bruce, deputy director of the state's Division of Commercial Fisheries, said research assistance would be welcome, though it's too late for this year. Studies would have to be planned and the money would have to go through the regular appropriation and procurement process, he said.

Communities in the Aleutians East Borough, about 1,100 miles southwest of Anchorage, catch salmon in Area M, also known as the False Pass fishery.

The state Board of Fisheries in February nearly tripled the time seine and gillnet fishers could catch sockeye salmon around False Pass in June, lifting restrictions that had been in place the last three years.

Fishers in Western Alaska strongly protested, saying incidental catch of chum salmon would cut off their dwindling subsistence supply, as well as subsistence sockeye in some areas of Bristol Bay.

The Federal Subsistence Board received requests from Bristol Bay and the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim regions to intervene.

The board does not have authority to regulate the harvest of fish outside federal jurisdiction. However, the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture departments can extend federal jurisdiction to protect a federal interest such as a subsistence priority.

The federal board collected testimony on the matter last week in Anchorage and hopes to forward a recommendation in a week or so. Federal biologists advising the board recommended against intervening, in part because limits on information make it difficult to reliably anticipate the outcome of changes in the Area M June fishery.

Aleutians East Borough Administrator Bob Juettner said the borough decided to make the offer after comments made at the hearing by Demientieff, the chair from Nenana, urging areas to work together to resolve their differences.

''We felt that Mitch Demientieff was reaching out to do something positive,'' he said.

Juettner said the stock identification needs to go the entire route the fish travel to understand where they are caught. The study also could show that chums caught in Area M may originate in streams where there is no perceived shortage.

''Let's follow these fish and see where they're going and who's catching them,'' he said.

Better information could lead to in-season management, he said.

''If we have caught too many chums, close it down,'' he said.

Bruce, the state commercial fisheries deputy director, said the state performed chum salmon genetics studies from 1993 to 1996 that have provided important but incomplete baseline data.

The research was able to distinguish Asian chum salmon from North American and identify Bristol Bay, Upper Kusko-kwim, Kotzebue area and Yukon River fall chums. But researchers did not have enough power and resolution in their genetic tools to detect genetic markers that would distinguish some chums north of the Aleutian Islands, including a mix that included Lower Kuskokwim River and Norton Sound fish.

''That gets into some of the complexities of the research,'' he said.

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