Subsistence board approves rainbow trout fishery

Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The federal subsistence board has approved a subsistence fishery for rainbow trout in the Bristol Bay region.

The unanimous vote came Wednesday at the board's meeting in Anchorage.

The six-member board heard little opposition to the proposal to make Bristol Bay rainbow trout, world famous among anglers, available to subsistence fishermen. Dan O'Hara, chairman of the Bristol Bay Regional Advisory Council which authored the proposal, said he expected strong opposition from avid anglers and fishing guides.

The plan permits Bristol Bay residents to keep five rainbows a day during most of the winter months and two a day during the summer. The only legal gear is rod and reel, and there are no size limits on the fish.

Only certain streams are open to federal subsistence fishing. They include portions of the Alagnak, the Ungalikthluk and the Newhalen, acknowledged as some of the top rainbow trout waters in North America.

Doug Vincent-Lang, assistant director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sportfish Division, estimated that only 20 percent of the rainbows caught every year in Bristol Bay come from waters that will now be open to subsistence fishing.

Nevertheless, he and others remain concerned about the region's sportfishing future.

''It depends on how many federal users take advantage of the opportunity'' to fish, Vincent-Lang said. ''That's the million-dollar question.''

O'Hara, whose council represents the subsistence users, said he doubts the new subsistence catch will rise much above current harvest levels. An estimated 2,500 fish a year are landed by sport fishermen or by subsistence fishermen seeking other species.

Neither the state nor any federal agency has trout population estimates for Bristol Bay streams, biologists have said, nor does anyone know how many rainbows die after being caught and released by anglers.

Estimates put the death rate at 2 percent to 10 percent of the 156,000 fish caught in the region every year, or up to 15,000 fish.

Bristol Bay rainbows are the stuff of legend, growing to 30 inches or more and putting up rod-bending fights. Fishermen fly in from around the world and spend thousands of dollars a week in hopes of landing a big one. The region's sportfishing industry is one of the biggest in rural Alaska.

The subsistence board was virtually bound to approve a subsistence fishery after the Bristol Bay council requested one. If the residents of an area have a customary and traditional use, the board can only reject a proposal if it meets certain negative criteria, such as being ''detrimental to the satisfaction of subsistence needs.''

The rainbow trout proposal met all the criteria, board chairman Mitch Demientieff said. But some board members wanted additional protections to ensure the stocks on small streams would not be jeopardized.

In particular, they wanted assurances that high-profile rainbow streams in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge would not be fished out by subsistence users.

Under the new regulations, fishermen will need a federal permit to fish for rainbow trout. Catch data from the permits should give wildlife managers information they need to close a stream, if necessary.

Though the board heard little opposition, those who manage the streams in question may find tempers rising next summer as fishermen of both sorts, sport and subsistence, work the same waters.

Troy Hamon, head of natural resources management for Katmai National Park, said it may take a while for sport fishermen to realize that subsistence fishermen have as much right to fish as they.

In his experience, however, ''A lot of what we see is rural people sticking up for things they see as their right, but once those things are pushed through, we don't see a lot of people exercising it.''

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