Subsistence fishermen want harvest of Bristol Bay trout

Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The federal subsistence board opened three days of meetings in Anchorage Tuesday, with the subsistence harvest of rainbow trout in Bristol Bay on the agenda.

The idea is anathema to sportfishing enthusiasts, who catch and release more than 150,000 rainbows a year in the Bristol Bay region. The olive-green trout with its distinctive stripes and spots has spawned its own industry, drawing fishermen to remote lodges that can charge $6,000 a week.

They fear that rising subsistence harvests will cause rainbow stocks to fall. It would ripple through the Bristol Bay economy, said angling guide Jerry Sisemore of Anchorage.

''There are people who fish their entire lives looking for one 30-inch rainbow trout. They can do that now, but they may not when you put (rainbows) on the dinner table,'' he said.

Subsistence proponents say their plan would only legitimize a small, traditional harvest. It shouldn't affect rainbow stocks, said Robert Heyano, a member of the Bristol Bay Regional Advisory Committee, which submitted the proposal.

''The regulation we propose reflects historic and current practice,'' he said, in which residents catch one or two fish for a meal.

''It's definitely not our intention to harm'' the sportfish business, Heyano added. ''We feel this is an opportunity to provide for subsistence users to take one or two rainbows and still maintain the integrity of that industry.''

The issue is charged enough that the subsistence board's staff couldn't agree on it. Half supported the Bristol Bay council's proposal, which permits rod-and-reel subsistence fishermen to catch two rainbows a day from April 10 to Oct. 31 and five a day for the rest of the year. Fishermen could take any size fish on any stream that drains into Bristol Bay, using bait or artificial lures and either single or treble hooks.

The other half of the staff prefer a second, more restrictive, option that mirrors the state's sportfishing regulations, developed over the last dozen years to promote conservation of the fish. It would allow subsistence fishermen to catch five fish a day during the winter, and two fish daily on some waters during the summer.

But the region's best-known streams, such as the Alagnak River and Iliamna Lake and its tributaries, would get additional protection. Some rivers would be closed for portions of the summer, and at other times fishermen could use only unbaited single hooks. Summer bag limits would be reduced to one fish a day.

The state supports the latter option, said Doug Vincent-Lang, assistant director of the sportfish division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

''We think that's a valid approach as an initial step in providing subsistence opportunity'' while managing rainbow stocks conservatively.

Although state biologists and recreational anglers fear that rainbow stocks could fall if subsistence harvests increase, the federal biologists on the subsistence board's staff don't share their concern. Less than 2 percent of the rainbows caught in Bristol Bay waters are intentionally killed and kept, and that number is unlikely to change dramatically under either option, they said. That many or more fish die after being caught and released, they noted.

Other proposals before the board include several that would revise the Prince of Wales Island steelhead fishery, one that would allow the use of small fish traps on the Copper River, and one that would liberalize the king crab catch limits in Kodiak.

The board meets through Thursday at the Egan Civic and Convention Center.

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