Studies say Western chum runs are healthy

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- New biological reports say chum salmon runs on some Western Alaska rivers are not in horrible shape, at least in biological terms, despite disastrous cuts to commercial and even subsistence fishing in recent years.

In fact, too many chums might be escaping upriver to spawn and that could be part of the problem, the reports say.

The reports are sure to add punch to one of the state's toughest fish fights: whether the commercial salmon fishery at False Pass should be curtailed to allow more chums to slip by nets and swim farther north to the Western Alaska rivers.

The state Board of Fisheries will weigh the biological reports among other science and public testimony in meetings beginning Jan. 17 in Anchorage.

Scaling back or even eliminating the lucrative False Pass fishery was among emergency measures Gov. Tony Knowles this summer instructed the board to consider to ensure the biological health of Western Alaska salmon runs. In three of the last four years, Knowles has declared a salmon disaster in the region, triggering millions of dollars in relief.

Western Alaskans long have bitterly complained that the False Pass red salmon fishery, which catches some migrating chum salmon incidentally, is an ''interception'' fishery that hurts chum returns to Western Alaska rivers.

The biological reports were prepared primarily by John Clark, a former chief fisheries scientist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who now lives in Montana. He studied the biological escapement goals for some Norton Sound rivers; for the Anvik River, a major summer chum producer and tributary of the Yukon River; and others.

He found that chum runs are healthy, but that in some years of relatively high abundance not enough fish were harvested and so excessive fish escaped. He recommended the board possibly reduce some escapement goals.

Another major river that has suffered salmon woes in recent years, the Kuskokwim, was not among the rivers studied due to a lack of sound historical data.

Too much escapement is not good, said Doug Eggers, chief fisheries scientist for the state Division of Commercial Fisheries. It can lead to fish competing for spawning spots, fish spawning over one another and young fish overburdening freshwater feeding grounds. Future runs can suffer as a result.

''These analyses suggest that these stocks are really not depleted or anything like that. They really could stand some exploitation,'' Eggers said.

He also said recent talk by some Western Alaskans of seeking endangered listings for some Nome-area salmon runs is ''nonsense.''

Dan Senecal-Albrecht, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, which represents subsistence and commercial fishermen, said the biological reports don't overcome the main issue: the economically disastrous fishing closures endured by Western Alaskans.

''No matter how you tinker with escapement goals, the fact is the outlook is bad,'' he said. ''These last three years have been horrible.''

It's not fair that Western Alaskans could again be sitting on the beach, unable to fish commercially or even for subsistence, while the False Pass fishery goes on, he said.

''Everybody's got to share in the conservation burden,'' he said.

But False Pass fishermen say they doubt that cutting their fishery will appreciably boost Western Alaska chums, which scientists believe are going through a period of lower ocean survival.

Representatives for Alaska Peninsula fishing communities such as King Cove, Sand Point and False Pass say gutting the False Pass fishery could create ghost towns.

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