Knowles calls for end to interception of Western Alaska chum salmon

Posted: Wednesday, August 09, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles upped the ante Wednesday in an already bitter fishing dispute by calling for an end to the interception of Western Alaska chum salmon by Alaska Peninsula fishermen.

The move is in response to the latest collapse of salmon runs in Western Alaska rivers.

At a news conference in Anchorage, Knowles said the interception of chum salmon by commercial fishermen threatens the subsistence and salmon escapement needs of Western Alaska.

''There has to be dramatic action taken,'' said Knowles, who acknowledged that cutting the harvest for Alaska Peninsula fishermen would be difficult and controversial.

Knowles said he had an obligation under the Alaska Constitution to manage the state's fisheries for sustained yield and said state statutes establish subsistence as the highest priority of any harvest.

Knowles has directed the Alaska Board of Fisheries to take action to stop the interception and has asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to take steps to reduce the bycatch of fish bound for Western Alaska rivers.

''It's going to make for some lively meetings, I know,'' Knowles said.

Communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and on Norton Sound have, for years, argued that commercial fishermen in what's known as ''Area M'' were harvesting salmon bound for Western Alaska rivers.

The Area M fishermen harvest chum salmon as bycatch during their June sockeye fishery, but contend that they catch only a small portion of the total chum run. They say there are no conclusive links between their fishery and the problems on the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound.

During the past three years, Area M fishermen caught fewer than the 250,000 chum salmon allowed under a cap set by the Fish Board, said Bob Juettner, administrator for the Aleutians East Borough.

Juettner said Knowles' action would effectively shut down the Area M sockeye fishery and would have disastrous economic consequences for communities on the Alaska Peninsula.

''I'm shocked,'' Juettner said. ''This is the death knell for the local economy. We cannot survive without the June fishery.''

It isn't possible for Area M fishermen to harvest sockeye without catching chums, Juettner said.

Area M fishermen blame the poor returns in Western Alaska on climatic changes in the ocean.

Myron Naneng, who heads the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, said he would wait to see if the Fish Board takes strong action to conserve fish stocks as Knowles requested.

Naneng said he and others concerned about Western Alaska salmon returns have been bringing the issue before the board since the mid-1980s.

''This was a long time coming,'' Naneng said. ''There has to be more attention paid to the conservation concerns than there has in the past.''

Knowles said there may be a number of causes for the collapse of Western Alaska fisheries. He called the management action a first step in addressing the problem.

Knowles said he also was asking Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, for $30 million over the next five years for a biological study to determine the reasons for declines in salmon fisheries.

In addition, Knowles said it may be time to reduce production from the state's salmon hatcheries. There is evidence that hatchery fish compete with wild salmon for food while they are in the ocean, he said.

Knowles last month declared a state disaster emergency for portions of Western Alaska where king and chum salmon returns have been just a small fraction of their historic norms. Returns this year on the Yukon River were the lowest since statehood.

The declaration makes state and federal disaster assistance available to area residents.

Western Alaska also suffered fishery disasters in 1997 and 1998.

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